INSIDE OUT: Robert Peston - Blair may be more of a strategist than Major but, like his predecessor, he is semi-detached from his party, bobbing around in the central stream

INSIDE OUT: Robert Peston - Blair may be more of a strategist than Major but, like his predecessor, he is semi-detached from his party, bobbing around in the central stream - In journalism, there is no riskier enterprise than writing about politics for a

by ROBERT PESTON, editorial director of QUEST,,e-mail
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In journalism, there is no riskier enterprise than writing about politics for a monthly magazine in the run-up to a general election. Supposedly immutable facts about the balance of power within parties and between parties can suddenly become old hat.

Today's profound political insight can soon seem a terrible anachronism.

However, here is a thesis that may have staying power: tomorrow's historians will describe Tony Blair not as the personable bastard scion of Margaret Thatcher and Hugh Gaitskell - the incarnation he prefers - but as the son and heir of John Major.

Blair is a manager, not an ideologue, just as Major was. And although he is more of a strategist than Major, Blair is like his predecessor in being semi-detached from his party, bobbing around in the broad central stream of British politics.

But before we morph Blair into a bespectacled cricket fanatic, let us assess the coming election campaign.

We need to start, of course, by consulting the sleazometer. Where the Tories were tainted beyond redemption in 1997 by a never-ending stream of disclosures about the venality of their ministers and MPs, Labour is also losing credibility in its claim to be restoring the moral fibre of British politics.

Mandelson's unreliable memory of a conversation he may or may not have had with a Home Office minister about the desire of a certain Indian billionaire to obtain a British passport is far less damnable than the cupidity of Neil Hamilton. But the aftermath of his resignation could turn out to be almost as bad for Blair as Hamilton's fall was for Major.

What is unpalatable for many voters is the vanity displayed by Mandelson and Alistair Campbell, the prime minister's influential press secretary. The interests of government and party were ignored as they rowed over whether Blair had been peremptory in accepting Mandelson's departure and whether Mandelson is a liar.

There is more to all this than meets the eye. It is not just a case of egos running riot. The incident says a lot about the fundamental weakness of New Labour. Its lack of an ideological guiding star means that the appearance of unity between its main protagonists, the perception that it is competent, is particularly important.

Meanwhile, here is re-run number two of previous election skirmishes - viz, the allegation that an opposition's public spending and taxation plans will hobble the economy and undermine individuals' quality of life.

In 1992, the Conservatives - with the help of the Daily Mail - devastated Labour's comeback by creating a highly resonant tax scare. They warned that ordinary middle-class voters would suffer a significant fall in take-home pay from the Labour party's plans to raise the top rate of income tax and abolish the ceiling on National Insurance payments.

The 2001 version of this notorious 'tax bombshell' campaign will be an emotive Labour attack on Tory public spending plans. It will allege that Tory proposals to reduce expenditure to make way for tax cuts are unconvincing and that the UK, under William Hague, would face either escalating national debt or savage cuts to public services. The scare will be about slum conditions in schools and hospitals.

So where are the new ideas from a government that won a landslide in 1997 on the back of a popular clamour for change? Have you, like me, noticed that there have been no spanking new policies for a couple of years? And have you observed that even some of the boldest things Blair has done, such as giving independence to the Bank of England and making it harder for the unemployed to remain on benefit, can be seen as extensions of reforms taken by the previous government?

For a pro-European like me, it is disappointing that Tony Blair - whose personal commitment to the EU is real - should be just as equivocal about joining the euro as Major.

The big difference between the Blair and Major regimes so far is that, in an effort to raise standards in education and health, the Government has centralised public service decision-making and increased the spending power of ministers. However, there is an increasing realisation among the more creative Labour thinkers that ministers must let go of the reins of power, to re-empower schools, hospitals and local communities.

The biggest ideas looming for Labour are decentralisation, the concepts of the 'active citizen' and 'civic renewal'. Much of this is redolent of Major's 'opportunity for all' Conservative party, for which he was widely derided. Blair is the more astute politician of the two, but they identified similar problems and as they are both liberal pragmatists at heart, their solutions are similar.

Blair's only hope of going down in history as a prime minister who changed the fundamental direction of the UK is to embrace the risk of trying to take the UK into the euro. But the odds of him doing that do not look good. So meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

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