Blair's commitment to both old and new supporters

Watching the Prime Minister

Donald Macintyre
Thursday 30 April 1998 23:02

THIS time last year, West End theatregoers were flocking to see Tom and Clem, a serendipitously timed play set in the immediate aftermath of the 1945 election. At its most resonant moment, Attlee stops worrying about how to make people realise his victory won't bring "Jerusalem overnight" long enough to express surprise that the distinctly ruling class young official looking after him at Potsdam had voted Labour. "Quite a lot of us did," she says in crisp, Southern Received English tones, "that's why you won."

The exchange expresses why Blair reminds those who marvel, or alternatively fret, at his appeal to so called middle England, that all successful governments, including Margaret Thatcher's, have been built on popular cross-class coalitions of the same sort. The difference, it no longer needs saying now that Blair has said it so often, is that the Labour ones all lasted for only one term. This doesn't look like a government which will last for only one term. You can't find a politician in any party who works on any assumption other than that Blair will win the next election. Except one. Blair makes no assumptions. He is telling colleagues that Labour will take some punishment in the local elections next Thursday. He is unmesmerised by the polls, realising that what goes up must come down. He knows only that maintenance of that coalition is the necessary condition of his government's passage into terms two and perhaps three or four. Blow it, and you blow your best chances to change history.

This accounts for Blair's impatience with many of the complaints made about his administration so far. He has been known to remark that some people in his party feel that a Labour government is only fulfilling its sacred mission if it is in crisis, heading for defeat. He doesn't believe that a government introducing a minimum wage, union recognition rights, an objectively redistributive budget, a New Deal for the unemployed funded by a raid on the utilities, has exactly trashed its core constituency. Or that one that has surgically removed the middle class perk of free university tuition is too timid to confront vested interests. Or that one which which has devolved more power, monetary and political, than anyone expected, is too authoritarian. But he believes that those who think he should have moved even faster fundamentally misunderstand that in the long term fiscal prudence and popularity deliver as imprudence and unpopularity - emblems branded on past Labour governments - never can. Yes, social exclusion unit not withstanding, sink estates are still sink estates; but how long did it take Margaret Thatcher to deliver her big achievements - union reform, privatisation, the big bang? By the end of the first term, let alone the first year, she had hardly started.

On Europe, I suspect, Blair does reluctantly accept that his unique opportunity to lead in the formation of a flexible, deregulated, open Europe in the post-Mitterand, and soon-to-be, perhaps, post-Kohl era will for the foreseeable future be circumscribed by Britain's self-exclusion from the euro to be finally born in Brussels this weekend. As it happens Blair's skills, triumphantly displayed in Northern Ireland, in circumstances in which he genuinely thought more than once a settlement was lost, are still in demand, in The Hague, Paris and Bonn, to help settle the wrangle over who should run the European bank. But this is in the end Franco-German business and that cannot fail to frustrate a prime minister who now has a much clearer vision of Britain's role in the world than when he came to office a year ago: not superpower but pivot.

But here again the same laws apply. Blair is unfazed by allegations of timidity towards EMU. First there is the little question of whether it does indeed succeed. Second, he is almost haunted by his observations of how Britain's entry into the ERM, timed to suit political rather than economic pressures, courted disaster. Until there is a credible economic case - and at present with interest rates at their current level and with Britain having no need of its fiscal disciplines there is none - then the political opposition can't reliably be vanquished in a referendum. According to his closest allies, it is that rather than fear of Rupert Murdoch which restrains him. What is true is that is that Blair won't risk his sustaining popular coalition by entry before the economics are right.

All that said, it has been an extraordinary, Britain-changing year - the highly avoidable messes over EMU, Bernie Ecclestone's funding of the party, and lone parent benefit cuts not-withstanding. There will be a reshuffle - perhaps at Whitsun - of a cabinet in which Brown, Prescott, Straw, Blunkett, Mowlam, Cook (at least when at his desk or in EU negotiations) and Frank Dobson have starred. There will be a change in the Cabinet Office structure, if not quite, as one high official recently put it, to give Blair a more "Napoleonic" grip on government, at least to give Number Ten some of the capacity to co-ordinate departmental activity every senior Downing Street adviser in living memory has complained it woefully lacks. But above all Blair will continue to govern as he has done, reaching beyond party to the country as a whole.

Which means, I think, more surprises like the lateral thinking that last week put Chris Patten in charge of the RUC review. Just when you thought you had caught up with the new politics Blair pushes the boundaries out a little further. (It can't be repeated too often that the question of electoral reform is for him one of means and not ends: the best way of sustaining the centre and centre left coalition of interests - the big tent - which brought Blair to power and which can keep the Tories out for a generation.) He talks with hitherto unfashionable ease about national purpose. His admiration of Thatcher's drive as a national leader isn't feigned. Nor is his admiration for businessmen, however queasy it makes some in the Labour Party. This isn't some aberration of style: for Blair, enterprise is where growth and jobs come from.

This doesn't mean forgetting about the poor. What it does mean is that Labour's newest supporters have as much claim not to be betrayed as those who have never voted other than for the Labour Party. Its a safe bet that Blair told Roy Hattersley, his most articulate critic on Labour's old Croslandite wing, when he met him last week that the alternative to a New Labour government isn't old Labour but Conservative. And that it does no service to the long term interests of those who most need a Labour government to will the victory but then forget how it was won.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments