Leading Article: Enjoy your conference, Mr Blair, there are tough times ahead

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It hardly seems decent to mention it, but the Labour Party should remember, at this week's seaside celebrations, that the general election was far from a decisive mandate for a new age of Blairism.

Of course, the Prime Minister's aides say: "We know that." Yesterday they ran about the burning warehouse of triumphalism dousing the flames with buckets of humility. No complacency was, once again, the Spin of the Day.

But the suspicion remains that they do not really mean it - that, in their hearts, the acolytes of New Labour actually believe that they have seen the light. This is not like the passionate conviction of the Thatcherites, unshakeably certain that "one policy fits all" and that, once the free market had worked its magic, electoral success would follow. The New Labour certainty is that they have been granted a unique understanding of the political process, which is to start with the objective of electoral success and work backwards, subjecting everything to that test.

This touch of arrogance is premature, to say the least. We saw it when Tony Blair, fresh from election victory, lectured his fellow socialists in Malmo about the need to re-examine old nostrums and institutions and bring them closer to the people. The intense interest from around the world in Mr Blair's landslide tempts the Millbank mob to think the New Labour model can be applied universally. When Mr Blair seized the moment after the death of Diana to act as spiritual as well as temporal spokesman for his people, they were tempted to think he had abolished party politics. And when their private polls told them he was loved by 93 per cent of the population, they started to believe it.

Let us rewind for a moment, however, and recall the circumstances of the general election. Let us remember that Mr Blair's 179-seat majority was an inaccurate reflection of the will of the people, when 44 per cent of the electorate voted Labour. Since then, to be sure, those who voted Labour tentatively are pleased that they did, and many others may wish that they had. The Blairphoria which followed the election acts as a kind of retrospective mandate. It should also act as a rebuke to Labour's new dissidents (social democrats and all stations further left, acting leader: Roy Hattersley), who imply that Labour should have done precisely what some voters feared, and lurched to the left as soon as it got into power.

But it does not yet constitute a sea-change. Mr Blair has been lucky and sure-footed in his five months in Downing Street, but he has not so far faced the kind of test where he has to offend a large or powerful interest group.

And there are a series of decisions imminent where the Prime Minister cannot maintain a benign consensus. The least immediate, inevitably, is the one theme in tomorrow's speech which has been spun in advance: the environment, with bold words about global warming. This is a smart response to TV pictures of the south-east Asian rainforest going up in smoke. But it does not tell us how the Government will cut this country's energy use, especially as it cuts the tax on domestic gas and electricity. Eventually, there will have to be winners and losers.

But not yet. And the same is true of welfare state reform, where the only loser so far seems to be the mascot of radicalism, Frank Field. As we report today, Gordon Brown is to take advantage of economic growth to widen the "welfare-to-work" net and proclaim Full Employment Again. So far, so good - better than that, so very good - but when the economy turns down, someone will have to pay.

Looming much closer, though, are hard decisions on the European single currency. Last week's pre-tremors in the City cannot be shrugged off. Surely it is time to engage, belatedly, with the arguments about sovereignty and democracy, now that Labour has finished using them to tear the Conservatives to shreds? Of course, there can be broad agreement that, if monetary union works, it is not in Britain's economic interest to stand outside it for long. But can we sustain a meaningful democracy within it? Despite the present lack of democratic accountability in the EU, there are good arguments which say that we can, but they have to be made, by the Prime Minister, and he should start tomorrow.

Mr Blair, then, deserves to bask in his party's applause tomorrow as he addresses the first conference of the Labour Party in government for 19 years. And he is such a judge of the public mood that his tone will be humble too, as in his injunction yesterday, "not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think". But he needs to show a real humility, by being prepared to take the people into his confidence when it comes to the "tough decisions" which he always promises to take but has so far managed to avoid.

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