That's enough tricks, Tony for Mr Blair A final trick

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The Independent Online
In the Commons last week, Timothy Kirkhope, a Home Office minister, was asked about bogus asylum seekers. David Evans, a very right-wing backbench MP, slipped in some comments about "immigrants who pay nothing and take everything". They should pay taxes for five years before they are allowed to use the health and education services, he proposed. Did Mr Kirkhope blanch? Did he call for an emergency team of spin-doctors? Did he try to distance himself from Mr Evans? Not at all. "I congratulate my honourable friend on his robust remarks," he said.

Therein lies the difference between the present Conservative and Labour parties. The Tories are not afraid to cause offence. Mr Evans's views are not typical of his party but nobody tries to silence him. And, in his suspicion of foreigners and in his belief that anybody, given half a chance, will rip off the taxpayer, he connects to the broad base of Tory sentiment. In this, as in other areas, we know what the party is about. Close your eyes, and listen to any ministerial speech, and you know that it is a Tory speaking.

No such assurance is possible if you listen to a Labour frontbench speech. The only offence Tony Blair will allow, it seems, is to Labour's own supporters. If Clare Short gently speculates about legalising cannabis or Ron Davies lets slip some Republican sentiments, disclaimers and retractions are issued within hours. Yet if Harriet Harman sends her child to a grammar school, Mr Blair steps forward to act as a human shield; if Kim Howells, the industry spokesman, writes in the New Statesman "brothers and sisters, embrace competition!", nobody turns a hair. As Jan Morris wrote in the Spectator last week, what we want from Labour are "thumpingly recognisable policies, based upon universally accepted socialist principles - decency ... fairness, as much equality as possible, guts". We are not getting them. What is socialist, or even centre-left, about Jack Straw's curfews or Chris Smith's severity towards benefit fraudsters or Mr Blair's denunciations of mixed-ability teaching? Whether the particular proposals are right or wrong is beside the point. They are not the subjects on which we expect the Labour Party to make waves and they mean almost nothing unless they are part of some wider social ideal.

The Tories propose more grammar schools and more selection. Does Mr Blair mount a vigorous defence of comprehensives? Does he remind us of the unfairness of the 11-plus, of the waste of human talent and blunted expectations in the secondary moderns? Does he point out that, in most cities, comprehensives have never had a chance because they are "creamed" of bright children by private and elite state schools and so are not really comprehensive at all? No. He tells us that he will try to enforce streaming. The question here is not whether streaming is good or bad - most comprehensives already do it anyway - but whether it is any of Mr Blair's business. The Tories are bossy enough but even they have not interfered much with internal school organisation.

Labour policies are like the Cheshire cat: look twice and they have disappeared, leaving only Mr Blair's enduring smile. We thought Labour would re-nationalise the railways. Now, it looks as if it will just regulate them in a different way. We thought Labour (or at least its leadership) was pro-European. Now, it is making increasingly sceptic noises. We thought Labour would revive training. Now, we learn, it will not impose a levy on firms to finance it. We thought Labour favoured a minimum wage and the European Social Chapter. Well, perhaps it still does, but its leaders do not stomp the country, rousing support for such things. Rather, they go to CBI conferences and City banquets to reassure industrialists and financiers that they won't really make any difference.

The truth is that Mr Blair has not yet moved on from his project to transform the Labour Party. Indeed, he cannot stop transforming it, and thus threatens to deprive the British electorate of any genuine political choice. He has become like one of those conjurors who must perform ever more improbable tricks with some unfortunate lady in order to hold the audience's attention. The performance usually ends with the lady being (apparently) sawn into several pieces. We must hope that, after the general election, this lady can leap unharmed from her coffin, to general amazement and applause.