Leading article: The message was clear: Mr Blair is not ready to quit

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Once again, Mr Blair had worked his magic. It is a tribute to his orator's skills, to his mastery of the political metier and, of course, to his speechwriters that he was able to pull this off. At least for the hour of his speech, Mr Blair converted an audience buzzing with speculation about how long he would remain in office, to one in thrall to his plans for Labour's "historic" third term. He even had the temerity to broach the prospect of a fourth.

Nor can anyone now accuse Mr Blair of running out of ideas. He made his case for more, not less, of New Labour with a sense of urgency and direction reminiscent of his first years in office. His defence of the transition to "choice" in the public services was especially compelling. The rationale for modernising the provision of health and education is heard all too rarely. Yesterday Mr Blair spelt it out. People's expectations in the 21st century were a world away from those of 1945. People demanded quality, choice and high standards - because they demanded them in every other walk of life.

Such a straightforward defence of internal competition and "choice" was welcome. As was the Prime Minister's personal promise that he would never allow a return to school selection at 11 or any charge for treatment in the health service. We could do with more language as unambiguous and jargon-free as this.

Which is not to say that this speech was without some very characteristic, and less honourable, sleight of hand. Uncomfortable topics were skated over, starting with the disgraceful one-phrase dismissal of Robin Cook, continuing with the justification for ID cards, buried in a subordinate clause, and the likely reconsideration of nuclear power as an acceptable source of energy. There was also a gratuitous and facile swipe at France's "malaise" and German "angst".

Most self-serving of all was the categorisation of Iraq as but one aspect of the global "war" on terrorism. Those who have suffered as a result of this catastrophic conflict might be forgiven for feeling that Mr Blair rather glossed over their losses in suggesting that, yes, "innocent people tragically die", but eight million Iraqis voted in the January elections. To describe Iraq, as Mr Blair did, as a "progressive cause", on the order of justice in Africa or peace in Palestine, was shamefully stretching definitions.

This guile was one element that distinguished Mr Blair's version of Labour's future from that of his Chancellor. But it was not the only one. Where Mr Brown's theme was stability and continuity, Mr Blair's was change and flexibility. Where Mr Brown spoke of lasting values learnt in the family, Mr Blair spoke of values that had to be applied anew in changing times. Among these, he suggested, were those governing human rights and civil liberties in an age of global terrorism.

There is much that Mr Blair can be proud of as he embarks on his third term as Prime Minister. The minimum wage, compensation for miners and the law on civil partnerships were among the achievements he listed yesterday, and rightly. An adaptable approach to values, however, is also an aspect of the Blair premiership, and not one - at least in our book - that will be an adornment to his legacy.