Britain's Leader Faces A Bumpy Ride in '98 Blair's Proposed Welfare Cuts Anger His Labour Party, but Please Conservatives

Article excerpt

Prime Minister Tony Blair intends to devote the coming year to reinventing Britain's welfare state. He says he wants to "change it so that it is better suited to the needs of the 21st century."

But the closing weeks of the old year flashed a warning to the landslide victor in last May's general election that slashing welfare spending will guarantee his Labour government a bumpy ride in 1998.

Blair has no further to look than the bitter debate that surrounded passage of welfare reform by the United States Congress in 1996. The measure requires recipients to work and places a time limit on benefits. More than a year later, the reforms have prompted a steep decline in welfare rolls, but remain a contentious topic. In the first months of his administration, Mr. Blair and his team of ministers rode a wave of unprecedented popularity. At one point opinion polls showed the man who ended 18 years of Conservative rule enjoying a 93 percent approval rating among voters. But by November, the honeymoon appeared all but over when Social Security Secretary Harriet Harman unveiled plans to cut welfare benefits to single parents - mainly unmarried mothers. Unease among Labour members of Parliament (MPs) turned into an impending revolt. Then, two weeks later, the government announced that special payments to the physically disabled would also be curtailed. In a series of speeches and interviews, Ms. Harman sought to justify the cuts, claiming that the government's plans to create more jobs and provide day care for children of single parents joining the work force would prevent her measures from causing suffering. But in the House of Commons Dec. 10, division over the proposed cuts led 47 Labour MPs to vote against the government; 14 others abstained, and one minister resigned. The rebellion by Labour politicians determined to defend the existing welfare state was not great enough to cause acute embarrassment to Blair - he has a 179-seat majority in the Commons. But more trouble was to come. On Dec. 22, more than 100 protesters in wheelchairs waving signs denouncing planned cuts in benefits for the disabled arrived at 10 Downing Street, Blair's official London residence. They daubed the gates with red paint. Twelve protesters were arrested. Meanwhile, a letter from Education Secretary David Blunkett to Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, deploring the payment cuts to the disabled, was leaked to the media. …