Tony, Gordon: you should have been there to see it

Labour's lost innocence
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Amazingly, the House of Commons still matters. This exasperating, clubby, antediluvian, ludicrously nocturnal institution, is not, as it had appeared to be since 1 May, running on empty. Which comes as a surprise to all of us - including, perhaps, the Cabinet.

From Tony Blair and Gordon Brown down, the entire Cabinet showed a sort of magnificent disdain for Wednesday night's debate on lone parents by staying away from it. Instead they ungallantly left the task of lending moral support to the embattled Harriet Harman to a neatly assembled collection of wannabes just below Cabinet rank: Steven Byers, Alan Milburn, Peter Mandelson, Tessa Jowell. Perhaps the tradition of a Prime Minister or a Chancellor of the Exchequer demonstrating their support for a minister arguing for an unpopular policy in which they have had a direct hand is an obsolete and theatrical convention. More probably it isn't. As a result of defying it, the Government's big beasts missed something real and palpable which was happening in the Commons Chamber.

Partly, yes, what they missed was the first painful confrontation of the parliamentary Labour Party with the economic and social realities of the programme which made them MPs in such large numbers on 1 May. In this sense the loss of virginity was not so much the Government's as the party's. Blair himself has never doubted for a moment the necessary pain that welfare reform would inflict. But for many in the party, including some of the newest of New Labour MPs, it came as a deep shock to be the ones so obviously inflicting it. This was, in other words, a confrontation between a ruthlessly modernising Government and those who do not get it.

That is not, however, quite the whole story. One way of looking at the events of Wednesday night is to say that the party was always going to show its cracks and that it might as well be now. The organised Campaign Group left were bound to rebel at some point. The very fact that they did so on Wednesday night can be regarded as little more than a testimony to Blair's seriousness of purpose. Some who voted against the Government on Wednesday night, were, in every sense, old Labour MPs. The majority were men and women who still wish the Labour Party was its unelectable 1980s self.

They may be even more dispensable than they look. First there is the size of Blair's impregnable majority, which could absorb any imaginable revolt. Second, the threat of removal of the whip, even if not carried out this time, is a potent one, since it carries deselection in its wake. And third, who knows? If electoral reform happens they may be driven off into a separate socialist party anyway.

But this group was by no means the only problem on Wednesday night. Quite a few of those who abstained, and a much larger group who voted for the Government with self-confessedly heavy hearts, included many who regard themselves as loyal Blairites. They arrived at their decision for quite different reasons. More than 100 Labour MPs signed the letter to Gordon Brown urging a delay in the lone parents benefit cuts, including five other select committee chairmen beside Chris Mullin, its main author. Mullin himself may have a background on the Labour left, but he enthusiastically endorsed Blair's candidacy for the leadership, strongly backs the welfare to work strategy, is hawkish on law and order, and has long since ceased to fight yesterday's battles. Those MPs, and the numerous agonising ministers who could be found on Wednesday night wishing they were elsewhere, shared a deep unease which is not conveniently dismissable as old Labour, and which concerned the specifics of the lone parents proposal, rather than the broad strategy of luring people off benefit and into work.

First, of course (unlike university tuition fees) this was a welfare reform whose impact was almost wholly on the poor. But there were also genuine doubts about the intellectual coherence of the measure. One was that the benefit cut might act as a positive disincentive to some existing lone parents to seek work (though not, and this was always important to Blair, to new ones), since anyone taking a short term or seasonal job would, once it was over, go onto a reduced level of benefit as a technically new claimant.

The objections do not mean that it would have been remotely sensible to retreat at the last minute to quell the revolt. To do so would have exploded any claim the Government had to fiscal credibility. It might, however, have been possible to do so several weeks ago, before the issue came to a head. The other problem, however, was a confusion in the Government's message about what the cuts were for. On at least two occasions Ann Taylor and Harriet Harman almost apologetically said the Government did not want to make the cuts but had no other choice because of Kenneth Clarke's tight budget limits. It was only last weekend that Blair's true message started to come through: this was an integral part of the larger Blair/Brown plan for reducing benefit dependency and getting lone mothers into work.

What are the lessons? Several on the old left are already busily drawing precisely the wrong ones. The relative leniency with which the rebels are being treated may be a partial acknowledgement of the messiness of the Government's handling of the whole affair. But it does not mean that Blair has any intention of being deterred from reducing the bloated welfare budget. Everything will be scrutinised, from disability benefit for people who don't need it, to the barriers that independent taxation of women may be putting in the way of redistributive measures like the taxation of child benefit.

There is no doubt that Blair used up on Wednesday night some of his ample store of political capital. It can be replenished pretty fast. But welfare reform won't be achieved by stealth. He needs to speak more loudly and more often about what he is trying to do; to become more of, in Tony Benn's memorable phrase about Margaret Thatcher, a teacher-politician. Oh - and next time Harriet Harman has a hard choice to force through Parliament, Messrs Blair and Brown should consider sitting on the bench beside her.