The Tories Should Support Tony Blair's Magnificent Defiance of His Own Party

By Oborne, Peter | The Spectator, December 6, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Tories Should Support Tony Blair's Magnificent Defiance of His Own Party


Oborne, Peter, The Spectator


The intelligent case for voting for Tony Blair in 1997 and 2001 was simple and very compelling. Only New Labour could bring about deep-seated reform of British public services. The argument went as follows: the Tories would never be trusted to tamper with the NHS or the social security system. Their motives were suspect. The voters were easily convinced that their real agenda was privatisation. Just as Richard Nixon, a Republican president, was the only political leader who could restore relations with communist China, so Labour's Tony Blair was the only man who could take on the public-sector workers.

All the brightest and best people around the Prime Minister - Geoff Mulgan, Frank Field, David Simon, Andrew Adonis, Peter Mandelson, Roy Jenkins, David Miliband passionately believed this. So did Tony Blair himself. The bitterest disappointment of the last seven years has been the slow, agonising discovery that this belief was unfounded. The modern Labour party may no longer represent the old industrial working class. It is made up instead of state employees of one kind or another: teachers, council workers, civil servants. With a few heartwarming exceptions, these are churlishly protective of their narrow self-interest, and as sentimentally attached to Spanish practices as any Coventry car-worker in the 1970s. Through the unions, the constituency parties and, to a steadily increasing extent, Labour MPs, public-sector workers represent a formidable power bloc for any ambitious politician on the make, and are eager to do damage to the Prime Minister.

Gordon Brown spotted this point very early on and has made ruthless use of it ever since. He contemptuously smashed Frank Field's audacious plans for welfare reform within six months of the 1997 election victory, and last summer made a mockery of Downing Street's scheme for foundation hospitals. There is a great contradiction at the heart of the Chancellor. When he goes abroad there is no greater advocate of free-market reform. He loves to travel the world earning praise in the Wall Street Journal, right-wing US think tanks and British Eurosceptic newspapers for laying into the supply-side rigidities that bedevil the rest of the European Union.

Reform within the United Kingdom is another matter. To this the Chancellor has been adamantly opposed. He attended the annual conference of every single publicservice union this year, on occasion making it crystal clear that he sided with the unions against Downing Street. As far as domestic policy is concerned, he has emasculated the Prime Minister, the reason why so many members of Tony Blair's immediate entourage would so dearly like to see him sacked.

Though composed of a number of divergent elements, this week's rebellion over the Higher Education Bill is fundamentally a Brownitc affair. This is what gives it such weight, and makes it potentially fatal to Tony Blair. The insurgents are being led by the former chief whip Nick Brown, who would have run the Chancellor's campaign for the party leadership in 1994. Nick Brown's old deputy from the whips office, George Mudie, is acting as his lieutenant. So is Ian Gibson, another of the Chancellor's backbench organisers. Extra venom is added to proceedings by the fact that the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke - a longstanding Brownite target who once memorably labelled the Chancellor 'power-crazed and bonkers' - is in the firing line. The removal of Clarke has been a medium-term Brownite objective for some time.

The crucial giveaway, however, is the wording of the early day motion critical of the Higher Education Bill. …

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