It will take more than soft soap and pious hope to rescue public services

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The opportunism of politicians is sometimes blatant, like that of Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory leader, who tried too hard to score a point at Prime Minister's Questions this week. Sometimes, however, it is more subtle. Tony Blair is engaged in opportunism on an altogether grander scale, shifting the whole balance of Labour propaganda. He and his ministers have decided it is time to be nice to public-sector workers.

This is not a bad idea. Indeed, it is such a good idea that Mr Blair should have done it from the start of his premiership. One of the obstacles to faster progress towards world-class public services has been the Prime Minister's own loose talk about the "scars in my back" from trying to get "people in the public sector" to accept change.

To be fair, Mr Blair has often praised the dedication and selflessness of public servants – but that is almost the background music of political rhetoric, especially in the Labour Party. It has too often been drowned out by the noise of stern warnings to public-sector workers and trade unions not to stand in the way of modernisation. These noises, designed to impress upon Middle England that New Labour is different from Old, often included posturing about using private companies to deliver public services without any clear idea of how to do it.

Yesterday, Mr Blair toned down the impatient "get with the project" language and tried to turn the row over the treatment of Rose Addis by the Whittington Hospital to his wider purpose.

He denounced Mr Duncan Smith for using individual cases to "denigrate everything about the public services, run them down, so that people feel it's all hopeless", in order to make the case for private provision as an alternative. This is over the top.

If the approach of Mr Blair's first term had its problems – the assumption that public-sector workers stood in the way of better services undermined morale – there are opposite dangers in the new emphasis. The Government risks the appearance of siding with the providers of public services against the consumers, regardless of the facts of individual cases. And not just the appearance.

When the Prime Minister said yesterday that "reform means redesigning public services around the consumer", the consumer is entitled to remain sceptical. What mechanisms are proposed to ensure that services "put the consumer first", apart from prime ministerial exhortation? Some of the ideas in Mr Blair's speech were promising. He recognised the importance of leadership at the level of the school, hospital or primary care trust, and the need to pay for it. He spoke of greater flexibility and experimentation, although he did not say how this would be reconciled with the need for higher national standards. He spoke of giving head teachers and NHS managers greater scope to set pay levels for their staff, but said nothing about how this was compatible with national pay bargaining. The result was an unsatisfying blend of soft soap and pious hope.

At least Mr Duncan Smith shows a serious interest in alternative systems of health and education that would give the consumer the same sort of power of choice, and the provider the same sort of incentive to service, as in the private sector. The danger in Mr Blair's new tilt is that it simply plays into the hands of the very trade unions that are currently pressing the short-term interests of their members over those of the consumers of rail services.

If the mechanisms for improving public services were effective, there would be no need for this all-or-nothing choice between regarding all public servants as either angels or as the enemy.

The Government should not have to favour either consumers or providers at the expense of the other – both would be happier if public services were more efficient. Doctors are as frustrated as their patients by delays in getting tests or operations done. Teachers would get more satisfaction, and would therefore be less likely to leave the profession, if routine paperwork were done by clerical staff. Rail workers would rather work for a railway that worked than spend all their time dealing with complaints or questions about late and cancelled trains.

The critical question is how to achieve such a happy win-win situation. Mr Blair's speech, for all its warm words and good intentions, took us no closer to the answer.