Time Is Catching Up with Mr Blair

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Byline: ANNE MCELVOY

I READ that Mr Blair is returning refreshed from holiday and about to do such things as will be the terror of Gordon Brown, let alone the rest of the Labour Party.

Secondary schools will escape the clutches of local authorities, hospitals will be granted more freedoms to run themselves than the modest leeway wrested by Alan Milburn from Mr Brown. Even the police are to be subjected to even more "private-sector ethos" in an attempt to increase the value they provide for our money.

In short, the Chancellor is being told to get his scooter off Mr Blair's Number 10 lawn for a good while longer. Vive le Blair.

How exciting. If only we hadn't heard most of it last year and quite a lot of it the year before that. The September reassertion of the PM's prerogative is as much a part of the autumn ritual as new school shoes for the children.

So does he mean it this time?

The checklist is eerily familiar.

The new emphasis is a sharper interest in antisocial behaviour and a belief that the police are, in the words of one key Number 10 aide, "the last unreformed public service".

The police PR machine is formidable, its pressure groups adept at masquerading behind the public good.

One Kenneth Clarke whose formal entry into the Tory leadership contest brings fresh impetus to a flat and timid race - sought to reform police working practices in his day as home secretary and succeeded only modestly and at the price of a vast wages hike. No successor has revisited that thankless task. It may well elude Mr Blair in his final term. O ON education, he's on safer ground having recognised that the structure and funding of secondary schools and their dependence on the goodwill of local authorities acts as a powerful break on intended reforms. So the city academy programme is to be expanded, allowing greater autonomy of schools to become the norm rather than an exotic exception.

The Prime Minister is particularly sensitive to the charge - based on poor results from some city academies - that the entire model is failing. He's right to press ahead with the city academies, which have often taking over from appallingly

accurate enough diagnosis of what has gone wrong and it works out (eventually) what to do about it. It then flounders around for several years and finally panics that not enough is being done to enshrine real and lasting change. This, for all the defence of his key domestic policies, is where Mr Blair now is on reform.

The least prepossessing instinct of the Downing Street machine under these conditions is to decree that someone else must be at fault.

So the game of "blame the ministers", which thrived under Alastair Campbell, is making an unedifying comeback.

The Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, is currently in the firing line, rumoured to have opposed a tougher approach to antisocial behaviour and reluctant to send culprits to prison.

It is not really Mr Clarke's fault that so little thought went, in the last term, into Labour's approach to crime.

"We were the poor relations in Number 10," says one former adviser on the subject acidly.

Most key matters were left to Mr Blunkett, who always talked a good fight, whether or not he actually fought it.

But Mr Blair was horrified to realise, when he toured the country in the election campaign, how much "antisocial run schools and improved them. …