Land of make-believe

23 Feb 07
PETER RIDDELL | Tony Blair is not going quietly.

Tony Blair is not going quietly.

He uses every opportunity — speeches, television and newspaper interviews, Downing Street seminars, even appearances in the Commons – to show that he remains fully engaged, is busy and has plenty of ideas about new policies. He is not yet ready to be reflective and valedictory.

Much of what he says is thoughtful and sensible. After ten years in office, his assessment of the problems facing Britain remains shrewd and well-informed, without the inevitable controversy marking his foreign policy pronouncements.

Yet there is increasingly an air of make-believe about all this activity. What matters are the views of Gordon Brown, his still all-but-certain successor.

The government’s six policy reviews were supposed to be part of the transition from Blair to Brown. After some initial misunderstandings, the two men jointly launched the exercise at a harmonious meeting with ministers on November 7 last year.

There was to be no attempt to set out an agenda lasting for years after Blair’s departure. The emphasis was on a continuing process, closely linked to the chancellor’s Comprehensive Spending Review. Big issues were identified and junior ministers closely involved in the reviews, which covered the role of the state; public services; security, crime and justice; energy and the environment; Britain and the world; and economic dynamism.

The whole process has given junior ministers the chance to have their say and has been remarkably open, both in the quantity of documents that have been put on the web and in the invitation to journalists to attend at least part of some of the sessions.

Brown and his allies have been closely involved. He chaired a seminar in late January setting out his vision of a ‘values-based response to the challenges and opportunities of modern Britain’.

But despite these formal attempts at harmony, the exercise still smacks of end-of-regime Blairism. At a seminar this week of junior ministers in 10 Downing Street, chaired by Blair, the work of the economic dynamism group, chaired by Brown, was notable by its absence. Its discussions are regarded as very much a Treasury affair, not a Number 10 one.

Moreover, the reports of the working groups involving junior ministers and outside experts — following 13 seminars and 50 papers — are pretty tame.

At the seminar — at any rate the part open to the press — Hazel Blears, Hilary Armstrong, Beverley Hughes and Pat McFadden all made sensible points.

The government has to find new ways to tap into citizens’ changed forms of engagement (increased membership of voluntary groups and use of the internet) and to create a more direct sense of involvement.

Life satisfaction has remained constant despite big rises in living standards, and depression and anxiety have grown. So family support needs to be made more flexible and there should be more encouragement for voluntary activity.

Despite a narrowing in income inequality, sharply rising house prices have widened capital inequality. That will be hard to tackle in view of likely limits on the growth of public spending. Further reductions in child poverty will require expanded childcare to help more people into work. Aspirations need to be raised to change behaviour and improve health and educational outcomes.

This is all good stuff — remarkably similar to what the Tories are now saying — but it begs the main policy questions.

You could see Blair himself was dissatisfied. While praising the presentations, he said: ‘The next stage, to be absolutely blunt, is to get to a slightly harder edge on the outcomes.’

He spelt out some home truths on public resistance to paying more in tax, while warning of the need ‘to keep the coalition that has brought us to power in place’.

There is now only a short time before the conclusions from both the seminars and public consultations will be presented to the Cabinet on March 8. But this looks very much like a warm-up to the main event, the annual spring Budget two weeks later.

Not only does Brown normally range very widely in his Budget speeches, taking in several of his Cabinet colleagues’ portfolios, but this year he will be setting out the broad outlines of the Spending Review.

While all the details will not come until later, Brown will use the Budget both to confirm the overall rate of growth of spending from 2008 to 2011 and to reveal the main priorities.

This will have a far-reaching effect throughout the public sector as growth slows from more than 5% a year in the middle of the decade to less than 2% a year in real terms.

This announcement will be as, if not more, important than either the forward-thinking in the policy reviews or any initiatives that Brown announces when, at last, he enters Number 10. As chancellor, he is determining what he will be able to do as prime minister.

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