It may seem a strange thing, but Tony Blair has given a very good impression over the last few years that he has forgotten that he is leader of the Labour Party, as well as First Lord of the Treasury and Prime Minister. Certainly, few of his predecessors were allowed to forget their obligations to what a previous generation called "this great movement of ours", or "Tigmoo" for short. Successive Labour prime ministers had to deal with the "sovereign" party conference pickling programmes and manifestos that were diametrically opposed to the Labour government's policies. "Never again" was the New Labour response to all that, and the discipline, consistency and unity that Mr Blair and his allies imposed on the party were crucial in the rebuilding of Labour and its return to government in 1997.
But those virtues were bought at a price: Dissent was stifled, debate suffocated and the control freaks and the spin doctors became far too powerful, a development that culminated in that notorious e-mail sent by Jo Moore. So the publication yesterday of five Labour Party policy documents as the starting point for the next election manifesto is a promising sign that Mr Blair and the party chairman, Charles Clarke, may, tentatively, be ready to trust their own party.
As a sign of a less paranoid leadership, the move is to be welcomed; it might even encourage more people to join the party (or fewer to leave it). The danger is not so much a resurgent Trotskyist faction dragging the party back to the fringes of unelectability; it is simply that decisions made by the Government over the next two years will render the ruminations of party members redundant. To take just one obvious example, if Mr Blair were to act on his instincts and call a referendum on the euro next year, a document on Europe would be soon obsolescent.
The bigger picture, however, is of a prime minister and a government that want to be more self-confident but are frustrated at the failure of their "narrative" to find a more receptive audience. Downing Street dislikes the term "relaunch" to describe the flurry of recent initiatives and speeches, but that is pretty much what it amounts to. There is nothing wrong with that, and, as Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher found in their second terms, maintaining a sense of momentum and purpose can be the difference between, respectively, political failure and success.
The good news is that Mr Blair shows every sign of realising that he will be judged next time on his delivery, especially on the NHS. He said on Tuesday that Labour's "core mission" was to "improve our public services". He rightly stresses that reform is as important as funding, and that the public will only agree to higher taxes if they can be sure that the money will not be wasted in some "bottomless pit", as Mr Blair put it.
So the Blair message is not faulty, and neither is the commitment lacking, if only because the Prime Minister has so explicitly linked his own fortunes and re-election for a third term with the fortunes of the NHS. What should worry him, and indeed all those who want to see the NHS reformed rather than replaced, is that, for all the work that is being done to reduce bureaucracy, train more staff and introduce practical, far-reaching reforms such as primary care trusts, there is still the suspicion that the scale of the problem has not been realised. There is a nagging feeling that Downing Street believes that the NHS's failure is something that has largely been got up by the press. Mr Blair may thus underestimate the effort required to bring the NHS up to European standards, and do so at the same time that he is so distracted, necessarily, by international problems.
Delivery will be a long, hard slog, and Mr Blair should realise that it may well prove more arduous than he seems to think.Reuse content