Universal soldier

13 May 05
PETER RIDDELL | The clock is now ticking on Tony Blair’s tenure at Number 10

The clock is now ticking on Tony Blair’s tenure at Number 10.

The sharp fall in Labour’s majority means he cannot be sure of serving the three to four years of the full third term he has said he wants. But that does not mean he is powerless or at the mercy of events. He is determined to secure his legacy — and that means soldiering on with public service reform.

Just as he said he had been given an ‘instruction to deliver’ when he won again in June 2001, so, this time, he highlighted public service reform. ‘We will focus on delivering not just the investment but the reform and change in those public services,’ he said. ‘I will do so with passion because I want to keep universal public services but know that the only way of keeping the consent for them is by making the changes necessary for the twenty-first century.’

The first test came in the Cabinet reshuffle. Blair is not good at these, partly because he has never been anything other than prime minister and so does not understand the ambitions and frustrations of his colleagues. He is also reluctant to discuss appointments until after an election. So everything is hurried — just when he and everyone else are tired after a long campaign.

Whatever the reasons, the reshuffle was messy, with rumours about ministers rejecting proposed moves. Ruth Kelly was said to have turned down a shift from Education. She denied this. But the impression was of a prime minister at the mercy of his colleagues rather than in charge of them.

Three of the key public service secretaries of state retained their posts: Charles Clarke at the Home Office, Kelly at Education, and Alistair Darling (at his own request) at Transport. The big changes were at Work and Pensions, in which post David Blunkett returns to government after the briefest of exiles, and at Health, where Patricia Hewitt, a committed moderniser, comes in. So there are unlikely to be any big changes in policy. Hewitt is firmly committed to choice and diversity, and Blunkett has already made clear his commitment to tackling the rising bill for incapacity benefits and the challenge of adequate pension provision.

As revealing were the changes at minister of state and parliamentary secretary level, where there has been a significant advance by Blairite women. In the four key departments, seven of the ministers of state are now women, against just four men.

Blair’s determination to press ahead with public services reform was underlined by his willingness to defy his critics and appoint Andrew Adonis, a long-standing close policy adviser, as an education minister in the House of Lords. He will be responsible for implementing the Labour manifesto pledge to set up at least 200 city academies, and will cover education in London.

The Queen’s Speech on May 17 will include legislation in all these areas: to facilitate the creation of new schools, on education of 14- to 19-year-olds, to reform incapacity benefit, to tackle antisocial behaviour and disorder, and, most controversially, to introduce ID cards. Some of these will test Blair’s ability to see off Labour backbench critics.

As important, though, will be the implementation of existing policies, not only increasing the number of academies, but in expanding capacity and choice in the NHS (with increased provision from the private and voluntary sectors), to fulfil pledges on waiting times. So public service ministers will be expected to be deliverers as much as legislators.

Yet the ministerial changes will be followed later in the summer by a big reshuffle among permanent secretaries. First comes the decision on the successor to Sir Andrew Turnbull as Cabinet secretary. The short list includes three of the main public service permanent secretaries — Sir Nigel Crisp at Health, David Normington at Education, John Gieve at the Home Office — as well as Gus O’Donnell, the favourite, at the Treasury. The appointment will have big knock-on effects on the rest of Whitehall, since there is already a vacancy at the renamed Department for Productivity, Energy and Industry, with some more posts falling open over the next 12 months.

In the medium term — in next year’s Spending Review — the government faces awkward decisions on public expenditure after 2008. Slowdown in the overall growth of spending would raise questions about the commitment to improve standards of service, particularly in health, but also in schools and law and order. Yet growth in spending of more than the 2.25% to 2.75% underlying expansion in the economy would require tax increases since there is no longer scope for raising public borrowing.

Just as Blair’s remaining period as prime minister is likely to be difficult, so Gordon Brown might not have the smooth transition to the premiership he is perhaps hoping for.

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