Yes, the middle classes will have to be squeezed

Bridging the social divide
Click to follow
All around him, his enemies lie vanquished and scattered. To the right, the once mighty Tory party has only its mutual loathing over Europe to hold it together. To the left, there is nothing. His MPs are so silent and disciplined that Parliament, once a kettledrum of gossip and argument, has become a silent political shell. His ministers are hard-working, abstemious and loyal. Overseas, he is revered. At home, the unemployment queues are swollen by despairing satirists. Was ever a modern Prime Minister so favoured by fortune?

Yet this one is nervous; and rightly. For the full force and sweep of the Blair project has yet to be understood by the country. When it is, there will be many who dislike it, and politics as normal will slowly resurface. The election was overwhelming. But the real battle has barely begun.

What is the Blair project? It is in conception very simple, though rarely expressed simply. It is to persuade the middle-class majority to pay more for our services - whether in education, employment insurance, health, water or social services - without paying less taxation in total. The surplus is spent reclaiming the poor and jobless, mainly through education, and so closing the modern Two Nations divide.

This puts the Thatcher Revolution at the service of social democratic morality. She believed in making people more independent of the state, in encouraging private provision for health, pensions and education. So does Blair. But there is a difference. Her rhetoric suggested that this process would result in an ever-smaller state and lower taxes: he suggests that its purpose is philanthropic. The middle-class sacrifice is moral.

And many will resent it no less for that. Students, and people with children about to go to university or college, know what Blairism means at the sharp end. But it is only the beginning. The row over tuition fees will be followed by new and worse rows in the years to come, over hotel-style charges in hospitals; higher drugs bills for the better-off; water-metering; road-pricing; and perhaps expensive compulsory insurance.

People who complained during the Wilson, Callaghan, Thatcher and Major years about the tax cost of state services will find the experience of digging into their wallets for private provision at least as painful. Instead of raising taxes directly, this government will, in effect, privatise the extra impost. Will the people buy it?

That depends not on Blair's political rhetoric, but on whether he and Gordon Brown spend wisely. These are philanthropic islands. People give time and money to charity. But they want the money to be well used. The tax revolt happened not just because of the sheer level of taxes before Thatcher, but also - more importantly - because she persuaded taxpayers that most of their sacrifice was wasted.

So if the Blair project is to work, then millions of people will have to be convinced that it is efficient. Will, for example, people be well trained in useful skills which actually get them jobs? Will that then mean lower unemployment bills, less crime and greater social harmony? Keeping the middle classes on side will also mean being tough with the recipients of state help, and the people who deliver it. Confrontations are almost inevitable.

In fact, if you tot up all the people Blair will have to confront to some degree in order to create his fairer society, it's a pretty impressive list. There will be middle-class anger at ``having to pay more for everything''. Unless the Conservative Party is terminally incompetent, it will all be stoked up by the Tories, and blamed on Blair's ``ideological Europhilia''. Meanwhile, on the other side, there will producer and union anger at constant efficiency drives.

I don't mean to sound pessimistic. It will only mean ordinary politics has returned. Any democratic government which wishes to change the country, particularly in a way which benefits millions of excluded people, is bound to create enemies both to the left and the right. If Blair is to be a great leader, then these are necessary confrontations. The prize, too, is great: a country freed of its large penumbra of under-employed and poor, yet without a huge national debt. It is a vision worth the fight.

Nevertheless, that fight is likely to come at a time when the country is already feeling uneasy - when the familiar currency looks as if it is on the way out, and when the English are irritated by the puffy-chested Scottish Parliament, and when the economic cycle is dipping rather than rising. New Labour's popularity billowed up with almost magical speed; it could fall just as fast.

This explains, I think, the interesting lack of cheesy self-congratulation in Downing Street, and why Blair is continuing to try and expand his already huge circle of support.

If the Liberal Democrats, the pro-European business leaders and even Tory moderates are all in tacit alliance, then it will be easier to withstand the storm that will, eventually, arrive. There is plenty of hypocrisy and sycophancy among the new converts to Blairism; but there is quite a lot of real enthusiasm and idealism there too.

This reformist alliance needs some brave decisions by others. The Liberal Democrats, for instance, have an historic choice ahead of them. Should they form a libertarian or leftist opposition against Blair, or go further into alliance with him? Both choices are dangerous. Returning to opposition would mean turning their back on most of what they believe in, for the benefit of being distinctive, but marginal. (Not a great bargain, I'd have thought.) Going deeper in means taking the risk of being stifled to death in a cuddly, hairy-Blairy hug, while hoping to push the Government further towards political reform than it would otherwise go.

But they, like the rest of us, will have to decide whether the Blair project is worth supporting all the way. It is easy to back it now, when he is still illuminated by the glow of the election, and the enemies are scattered. But two predictions are safe. First, real politics will return. Second, the Prime Minister will find out who his real friends are only once it does.