Prudence is all very well, but this Government needs a sense of purpose

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Yesterday it was Mr Brown's turn to try to kick-start the government, barely a week after Mr Blair received such a lukewarm reception for his own attempt. Absent from the Chancellor's speech to the Social Market Foundation yesterday was one of his favourite old catchphrases: "prudence with a purpose". Mr Brown is still his prudent self, of course, which is no doubt why he devoted so much of his cliché-ridden speech to telling us that "the something-for-nothing days are over in our public services and there can be no blank cheques".

His cabinet colleagues might be perplexed as to when that had ever been the case during Mr Brown's tenure in 11 Downing Street. And to be fair to the Chancellor, there was a clear sense in his speech of the purpose of all the fiscal stringency – to place the NHS on a more secure footing.

We have also been notified that next month's Budget may raise our taxes for that same purpose, although there are justified fears as to whether all the additional expenditure will make significant improvement without radical structural reforms. The very trends that Mr Brown identified – an ageing population, new and expensive medical treatments, the development of genetics and other new frontiers, greater demand for choice by patients – mean that the cost of running the NHS will rise by more than inflation and more than the general rate of growth in the economy. Even with any increases in productivity possible within the confines of a monopoly, severe burdens will be placed upon the taxpayer. Whatever else, raising general taxation to pay for a better NHS can be no more than a short-term measure; it is a sticking-plaster solution when surgery is required.

Even if the Government could start to deliver a better health service, together with improved public transport and safer streets, this would not be enough. It must convince the public that it has a real sense of purpose, a convincing "narrative" as the spin doctors call it. Perhaps Mr Brown's Budget will reinvigorate things; it certainly needs to, given the failure of Mr Blair's speech to make much impact – delivered. let us recall, a mere nine months after he was re-elected for a "historic" second term.

It is not just Mr Blair's failure to deliver better public services that is making his backbenchers restive. They do not, bluntly, very much like how Mr Blair's second administration is shaping up. They are worried about escalating military commitment in Afghanistan; they are unpersuaded of the case for military intervention in Iraq; they are concerned about the Government's relationship with big business; they instinctively dislike Mr Blair's alliance with Silvio Berlusconi to reform Labour markets. On top of all this, they don't even trust the Government to deliver a ban on fox-hunting.

Of course, there is no need for Mr Blair to panic. Yet. Labour's "men in brown suits" are not about to enter Downing Street to tell him it is time to spend more time with his young family. He is still way ahead in the polls, although his personal ratings are slipping, and there is no effective opposition. But, as the fall of Margaret Thatcher showed, confidence in prime ministers has a habit of disappearing rapidly, and when they least expect it.

The Prime Minister needs to ensure that his support is deep, in both party and country, as well as wide. Mr Blair, aided by Mr Brown, must rediscover a sense of purpose to go with their vision of a better world at home and abroad. Perhaps they should think back to their days before Downing Street, and see if they can recover some of the boldness and élan they displayed in opposition. Above all, they must end this drift.