Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

This Is No Time to Go on Your Travels, Mr Blair; Intractable Problems at Home Are Not Deflecting the Prime Minister from His Global Mission. They Should, Says Mark Seddon

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

This Is No Time to Go on Your Travels, Mr Blair; Intractable Problems at Home Are Not Deflecting the Prime Minister from His Global Mission. They Should, Says Mark Seddon

Article excerpt

Byline: MARK SEDDON

IF it was Cardiff at the weekend, this week it must be Accra or Lagos. Tony Blair will shortly embark on a whistle-stop tour of Africa, including Ghana and that most populous and anarchic of countries, Nigeria. In Cardiff Tony Blair railed against those who would seek to "wreck" his plans for public service reform. In Africa, pestilence, starvation and war may weigh more heavily on his mind than the creaking condition of Britain's National Health Service. A degree of dexterity is essential for any politician seeking to bestride the international stage - and Tony Blair - that most ambidextrous of politicians may be in a better position to avoid the pitfalls being hastily dug by the media ready for his return.

Even before the Prime Minister and his entourage bid farewell to London's leaden skies, the charge reads as follows: "Tony Blair should be focusing on problems at home - rather than seeking to carve a role for himself abroad."

Here is what Tony Blair must prepare for should he decide to brave the press on his return: there may be a few soft questions from friendly souls on international debt, tackling Aids and what to do about Robert Mugabe's marauding thugs.

But then the heavy mob will move in. As night follows day there is bound to be another horrendous example of an elderly person left waiting on a hospital trolley. Or a London Underground signal failure leading to yet another evacuation. The questions will come thick and fast. The seeming intractability of ever putting Britain's public services right is enough to drive any political leader abroad where the adulation is louder and brickbats are absent.

THE temptation for Tony Blair will be to place domestic problems in the context of Lagos, where electricity is intermittent and a cause of great rejoicing when the lights come on. But woe betide Tony Blair should he mention the dread words: "Crisis, what crisis?" Good actors know all about timing, and so do good politicians. The timing of the Prime Minister's trip is not good - in fact it is positively bad.

Few can usually fault Blair for his high-wire act, his ability, like Harry Houdini, to struggle free from almost any imbroglio in the nick of time. But just take a look at the catalogue of problems that await his return; a bitter-dispute on South West trains, sporadic guerrilla war elsewhere on the railways and a brewing conflict in the Post Office, threatening the first national strike in decades.

Britain is paying the price for a quarter of a century of under-investment in the public services - a situation that did not improve a great deal in Labour's first term.

Now it is all hands on deck.

"Schools and hospitals first."

was the party's winning election slogan - and Labour was given an historic second chance. …

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