TEFLON TONY; the Railways Are in Crisis, the Health Service a Disgrace. So Why Don't the Voters Blame Blair? ANALYSIS

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Byline: EDWARD HEATHCOAT AMORY

TONY BLAIR remains popular with voters despite widespread criticism of his Government's failure to tackle the crisis in public services.

He still has the confidence of 51 per cent, according to a Guardian ICM poll yesterday, and his personal popularity is even higher than it was just before his election victory last year.

While other surveys repeatedly show the Government doing badly in public confidence on health and transport, the latest results show voters do not blame Mr Blair for these failings.

He is also untainted by criticism of his presidential style and extensive globetrotting diplomacy.

Here, the Daily Mail analyses what is being called the Teflon Tony effect.

THE Government stumbles from embarrassment to disaster, but nothing, it seems, can dent our faith in Tony Blair. Despite public despair over the railways and the Health Service, yesterday's poll found that his personal ratings remain astonishingly high, with 51 per cent of the country backing him as the best Prime Minister for Britain.

How has Teflon Tony managed this impressive feat?

Part of the answer lies in the poor quality of the alternatives. Iain Duncan Smith is still largely unknown, and almost no one takes Charles Kennedy seriously.

But the real explanation for Mr Blair's 'non-stick' trick is that it is all part of a well-orchestrated strategy, planned and executed by Alastair Campbell.

Mr Blair never 'takes charge' of an issue unless a suitable scapegoat has already been identified should the crisis, whatever it might be, prove to be intractable.

Sometimes this 'fall guy' is an expendable Minister, such as Frank Field on welfare reform, or Mo Mowlam in Northern Ireland. Even Peter Mandelson, the Prime Minister's closest political friend, was shown the door when the pressure was on over his links to the Hindujas.

More often, however, Mr Blair is wary of sacrificing Ministers to defend his own position. It looks bad, and they then lurk around on the back benches, causing trouble.

Frank Dobson - the victim of the Prime Minister's inept campaign to persuade Londoners to choose a Blairite stooge as their mayor - is an increasingly threatening presence in the Commons.

So more often, Mr Blair acts through outside advisers, or czars as he likes to call them. When they fail, it is much easier to sack them.

Former British Airways boss Bob Ayling acted as one of a number of lightning conductors for criticism of the Dome, Chris Woodhead did the same job at education, and Keith Hellawell was ditched as drugs czar when Britain continued to shoot up.

The next generation of external scapegoats is being lined up.

Derek Wanless, the ex-NatWest chief who is working on a report into the future structure of the NHS, is an obvious candidate for blame if waiting lists don't shrink.

So is Richard Bowker, new boss of rail quango the Strategic Rail Authority, and of course they can always dump John Birt if his 'blue skies' thinking on the railways doesn't produce rapid results.

So Mr Blair's claim to be taking 'personal responsibility' for policy delivery is nearly always a hollow one.

And so is the suggestion that he actually takes charge of the key domestic policy issues. In practice, he is far too busy racing around the world.

During the three-and-a-half years when Chris Woodhead was Mr Blair's personal choice as Chief Inspector of Schools, the Prime Minister met this key figure in his 'education, education, education' strategy only four or five times, mostly for cosmetic 'summits'.

New Labour likes to talk about the importance of 'personal responsibility', but its leader is well practised at avoiding it.

THE EURO

Taking charge: In October 1997, Mr Blair took 'personal charge' of Government policy on the euro, slapping down Gordon Brown. …