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Government by Next catalogue? Give us a break, Tony - and enjoy yours

THE GOVERNMENT'S annual report smells absolutely wonderful. It has the luxurious bouquet of a freshly delivered mail-order catalogue. Inspired, however, by the aesthetic school of verite, the "ordinary people" sending hand-written messages of appreciation to the Prime Minister look, well, a little peculiar - a reminder that New Britain is not that good- looking an island race.

There are pot-bellied fathers, a ferocious-looking female nurse, and a gurning chap with his finger in his ear and stick-insect legs sticking out from his shorts. Shafts of sympathy strike for Saddam Hussein, who has announced his intention to ban such inadequate leg-wear for Iraqi men.

For all the flattering comparisons with a company chairman's report, it is far more like the brochures the government used to issue in the old East Germany, full of pictures of men on building sites in cheerful conversation with Erich Honecker about the advances in the five-year construction plan. Communist ideology accepts no distinction between the party and the state. It is less excusable for a democratic government to spend public money on a venture which is, in essence, a party political document, brimming with selective statistics and generous interpretations of Mr Blair's progress. The prime ministerial press secretary enjoins editors to reproduce the graphs and charts showing how marvellous things are. Neues Deutschland would have obliged. We would rather not.

The most attractive character is, naturally, a Frenchman, who writes of Tony Blair: "Ses idees et sa jeunesse sont des points positifs".

Mais oui, ils aiment beaucoup le Blairisme en France, meme qu'ils tiennent un gouvernement distinctement socialiste.

In Germany, however, the SPD candidate for the chancellorship, Gerhard Schroder, let it be known last week that he no longer sees himself as following in Mr Blair's footsteps, lest he be associated with any British failures when his turn comes to face the electorate next month. Friday's decision by Siemens to run down its Tyneside plant after only a year is not likely to reverse this caution. This is hardly Mr Blair's fault. But modern governments take credit for everything that goes right, so they tend to get the blame for things beyond their control which go wrong.

Outsiders are often quicker to pick up a shift in vibrations than those close to home, and the question hovering over the Government at the end of this parliamentary session is whether it can keep hold of a Big Idea which will set it apart from other moderately competent governments. The factional turf-wars that marked the run-up to the reshuffle reflected badly on the participants and must be laid aside now.

The sacking of Harriet Harman and the departure of Frank Field at Social Security betray uncertainty about how to proceed in the promised reform of welfare. Mr Blair's defence of the record to date - including the odd claim that tuition fees in higher education constituted a substantial adjustment to the welfare state - were unconvincing. A shambolic presentation of the cut in lone-parent child benefit, lack of clarity on how to proceed on pensions reform, and the very modest implementation of welfare to work, still leave a considerable hole where radical change is supposed to be.

It is hysterical to declare, as the Conservatives have done, that Mr Field's demise means the end of all possibility of reform. But it does mean that the new team must act quickly to show that the Government knows what kind of welfare state it wants and how it intends to achieve it. So far, it has appeared to be guided by the Law of Kind Exceptions, in which any resistance to its plans in this area is met by a backing-off. The blight of poverty and the social isolation and crime that result cannot be addressed by a few pilot schemes. Mr Field may have been too uncompromising in his demands for a Year Zero. But the patterns of low expectation, cycles of deprivation and debilitating dependency - which he identified long before today's Blairites evolved - must be addressed if the Government is to leave Britain better than it found it.

The sheer effort of running government day-to-day drains energy. Without a central crusade, the best laid plans can be blown off course by the humdrum business of surviving crises, rebutting attacks and mopping up unexpected spillages such as Lobbygate. Harold Wilson's promises to engulf Britain in the white heat of technology ended up in a business-as-usual stewardship. And he did not have the time-consuming task of an EU presidency to cope with: that sapped too much of Mr Blair's attention in the first part of the year.

Since then, he has been preoccupied by the reshuffle. The long wait for this redistribution of forces led to accusations of indecision. But this was the first time Mr Blair was able to build the Cabinet he wanted, as opposed to accommodating people guaranteed a place in the inaugural Cabinet by the old Labour constitution. The pace of change in New Labour makes it easy to forget how many hangovers of the old order Mr Blair has still had to contend with. Two of the key victims - David Clark, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and Gavin Strang, Transport minister, were elected by the Parlia- mentary Labour Party to the Shadow Cabinet in 1996. To complain that they have been cruelly treated by Mr Blair now is topsy-turvy logic: he never wanted them in the first place.

Mr Clark gave an unreported valedictory speech, which I treasure as one of those small indicators that reveals the cultural gulf between Old and New Labour. He had been ousted, he complained, because he didn't attend enough fashionable London soirees and coffee mornings. Coffee mornings? What strange, 1970s retro-world does Mr Clark inhabit? One in which politicians gather for cups of Nescafe and plates of biscuits to the strains of Demis Roussos.

No, the party has moved on. Politics is a transient business and the reshuffled Cabinet is full of people who, unlike poor Mr Clark, managed to shed their old skins and move with it. The Kinnockites are now represented in force in pole positions, but they have learnt from their mistakes and march happily alongside the Blairite shock-troops.

But the time has come to turn New Labour's central promises into actions, rather than priding themselves repeatedly on having made such a good start. We need long- distance runners, not just flashy sprinters, to ensure more accountability and higher standards in the public services, better schools, a sustainable - and thus reformed - NHS.

The Prime Minister is plainly exhausted. No one who listened to his voice crack with fatigue when he appeared in the Downing Street rose garden to present his end-of-term summary could begrudge him three weeks R&R in Italy. He will at last have time to set aside rumination about who is in, out, up or down, and reflect on where it is that they are all supposed to be going. What the Blairites call "The Project" should not only be about getting the right people in place. It must, in the next year or so, evolve a better sense of direction, embodied in a substantial raft of policies.

Like Mr Blair, although accommodated in less princely style, I am off to Tuscany for two weeks. It is my devout wish to avoid any photographers intent on snatching pictures of me in unflattering shorts for inclusion in next year's Hail to the Government brochure. I advise you to do the same.