November 13, 2005


Rebels force Blair to halt key reforms (BRIAN BRADY, 11/13/05, Scotland on Sunday)

TONY Blair has put the brakes on his radical reform programme in a bid to quell growing unrest among Labour MPs, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.

Ministers have been ordered to postpone a shake-up of Incapacity Benefit (IB) for up to three months to give the Prime Minister badly needed time to sell the proposals to sceptical backbenchers.

A Scotland on Sunday investigation has established that up to 20 of the previously loyal Labour MPs who helped vote down the terror bill last week are prepared to rebel again over reform to benefits, schools and the NHS.

Blair's critics claim that, in a worst-case scenario for the Prime Minister, almost 90 Labour MPs could combine to defy the whips in the near future. Further parliamentary defeats would make it increasingly difficult for the Prime Minister to remain in office.

If the Tories hadn't taken forever to choose a leader, this is a moment where they could take back Thatcherism from her spiritual son.

It is Labour, not Blair, that is in mortal danger (Matthew d'Ancona, 13/11/2005, Daily Telegraph)

Something died last week, and it was not Tony Blair's premiership. For more than a year, we have known that his tenure in Downing Street will draw to a close before the end of this Parliament. Mr Blair acknowledged and embraced his political mortality long ago. What happened last week was that the Labour Party went mad and drove off Beachy Head. [...]

[T]he idea that his party won fewer seats in 2005 because the voters want a return to Old Labour values would be laughable if it were not so prevalent. If anything, the opinion polls suggest that the public is disenchanted with Mr Blair for not being radical enough - tired of spin, gimmicks and lack of progress, the voters hunger for public service reform that empowers the consumer, and measures that bolster their security.

An ICM poll for the BBC Politics Show in September showed that 80 per cent wanted more "choice" in public services and that more than half of voters wanted to see "private companies providing a greater share of public services". On the 90-day proposal, a YouGov poll for Sky TV last week showed that 72 per cent supported the Prime Minister. It is self-evidently the Parliamentary Labour Party - or a caucus within it - that is "out of touch". [...]

As for the Tories, this was not a glorious week. The strategy which seemed to be emerging over the summer, which was to back Mr Blair when he was right and make him dependent on Conservative support, was dumped unceremoniously in favour of familiar opportunism.

Those Tory MPs who insisted that the case for 90 days had not been made simply cannot have read - or, more likely, chose to ignore - the thoughtfully-argued submission to the Home Secretary by Andy Hayman, the Met's anti-terrorism chief. The Conservatives secured the defeat of the measure - and more importantly to them, the humiliation of Mr Blair. But, in this instance, they cannot claim the moral high ground.

It is a shame, really. In other respects, both leadership contenders had a good week. David Davis spoke well of the need for "a new Conservative coalition modelled on US lines". David Cameron gave a superb speech to the Centre for Policy Studies. But, on the 90-day proposal, both men missed the chance to be politically bold and morally strong. The Tories' opposition to this measure and their astonishing claim that it was all just a cunning ruse by Mr Blair to split the Conservative Party showed how far they still are from power. Sorry, gentlemen: not in my name.

As contentious measures on education, health and incapacity benefit come before the Commons, the new Conservative leader will have to decide whether to embarrass Mr Blair by backing him when he is right and his rebels oppose him, or to go for the tactically appealing but less strategically effective option of voting against him, no matter what. As for the timing of Mr Blair's departure, the impact of last week's vote, though real, has been exaggerated. "Tony is not going," insists one of his allies, "and we won't let him go."

Next May's local elections will be a critical moment: the Prime Minister would find it hard to survive an electoral disaster. But what he has made startlingly clear is that, having won three general elections, he is now willing to risk defeat in other settings in order to achieve his objectives.

It was truly astonishing last week to hear Mr Blair, the politician who once defined himself by placing victory before all else, say that "sometimes it is better to lose and do the right thing than win and do the wrong thing". The strategic risk for Labour is that, when he is gone, it will sooner or later manage both to do the wrong thing, and to lose.

Sound like any two parties you know?

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 13, 2005 8:30 AM
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