The Flaws in Sir Jeremy's Case

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Byline: By Paul Linford

Over the past year or so, it is fair to say that this column has been fairly consistently critical of Prime Minister Tony Blair - not just over the war in Iraq, but the whole general policy direction of his Government.

As I have argued on several occasions, I believe the gradual loss of trust in Mr Blair, particularly in his North-East heartland, has now reached the point where it will be hard for him to regain it.

It provoked a letter to The Journal this week from Sir Jeremy Beecham, veteran Newcastle councillor, leader of the Local Government Association, and one of Mr Blair's most fervent allies.

He claimed my attacks on the Prime Minister had become "tiresome as well as unjustified," and rattled off an impressive list of Labour achievements which I had, allegedly, overlooked.

Now in one sense, the expression of such sentiments by such a serial loyalist as Sir Jeremy is so unsurprising as scarcely to merit journalistic attention.

He is, after all, a member of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party, and trying to find an NEC member who disagrees with Mr Blair is a bit like trying to find a Tory councillor in Newcastle.

But Sir Jeremy Beecham is a serious politician who raises a serious point, and accordingly it deserves a serious answer.

So at the risk of being accused of becoming even more tiresome, I will devote the rest of this column to explaining why I believe the Prime Minister is now close to outliving his usefulness.

The paragraph in last week's column that I suspect provoked Sir Jeremy's ire was the one in which I lamented Mr Blair's apparent failure to build a lasting consensus for progressive centre-left politics.

In his letter, he listed a series of centre-left-ish achievements including low unemployment, the minimum wage, Sure Start, pounds 5bn more for pensioners, 55,000 extra nurses and cutting third world debt.

It is hard to take issue with any of that, and on unemployment in particular, the Government has an enviable record, though the gap between joblessness in this region and the national average has not markedly declined.

Sir Jeremy could - but significantly didn't - go on to mention the fact that Gordon Brown's tenure at the Treasury has seen a substantial redistribution of wealth in favour of the less well-off.

And therein lies my first point in response to Sir Jeremy's claims - that if this is genuinely a centre-left government, it would make much more of its record in this regard.

The fact that this Government is never, but never, to be heard shouting from the rooftops about having shifted the burden of taxation on to the better-off can only mean one thing.

It is that while the Government is indeed prepared to act to redistribute resources to those who need them most, it is only prepared to do so by stealth.

But in refusing to be honest about its intentions for fear of losing votes, New Labour is implicitly accepting its failure to breach the old Thatcherite consensus that progressive taxation is inherently bad.

The second point to make is that however considerable the Government's achievements, they are a pale shadow of what could have been had Mr Blair made the most of his political opportunities. …