tony blair's leadership

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Tony Blairs not on his way out, but its not clear where hes going

THERES something rather thrilling about watching Tony Blair on form. There he is, facing his partys annual conference, bloodied by the failure to find any Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the corrosive effect of the Hutton Inquiry and the wars messy aftermath; with Labour traditionalists who oppose his market-oriented policies out to pull his domestic agenda apart; with the press announcing his imminent replacement by his ambitious chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown. And yet his brilliant showmans sense catches the audiences mood with a speech that is bruised, touched with humility, but above all defiant. He is unrepentant about Iraq and apparently determined not to give an inch of ground on his domestic agenda to his critics. I have no reverse gear, he said. Most of the audience loved it, though the metaphor doesnt bear too much consideration as a BBC commentator pointed out afterwards, if you are on the edge of a cliff, a reverse gear is quite useful.

Still, displays of bravado do not answer the fundamental question. Is Mr Blair now so damaged that he is no longer an asset to his party, but a liability? The trust of the electorate is hard to earn and easy to lose. If poll after poll is to be believed--according to an NOP poll this week (see chart, above), nearly two-thirds of voters believe he lied to them over Iraq--the prime minister has forfeited it. Some people think that this loss of moral stature will, and should, bring Mr Blairs political career to an end.

Going nowhere

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It wont and it shouldnt. While Mr Blair--arguably Labours most successful leader ever--deserves criticism for the way the government presented its case for war with Iraq, there is no evidence that he lied. For all the obsessive interest in the minutiae of September 00s dossier on Iraqi capabilities and intentions, nothing has emerged to suggest that Mr Blairs belief in the threat posed by Saddam Hussein was anything other than heartfelt. Whether or not it was right to fight the war remains a matter of judgment. But although hindsight shows how the prime minister might have done some things differently and better, his sincerity should not be in question.

This is crucial for Mr Blair. For all the passionate opposition to the war among some Labour Party activists, even those who think that he made a terrible mistake appear ready to concede that at least he thought he was doing the right thing, and that he thought he had good grounds for that belief. Mr Blairs explanation in his speech to the conference of his decision to go to war was listened to with respect, understanding and even some applause. His reception overall, culminating in a seven-minute standing ovation at the end of a speech in which he had not ducked any of the difficult issues, was a deliberate message to the outside world. The Labour Party still wants Mr Blair to be its leader and will not allow him to be destroyed over Iraq. His achievement is to have made Labour feel for the first time in its 10-year history that it can be the natural party of government and it is sufficiently grateful for that not to desert him in his hour of need.

None of which means that the prime ministers recent difficulties are at an end. Mr Blair remains at odds with much of his party and the trade unions over his plans for public services. In particular, he still faces intense opposition to his efforts to give hospitals some independence from bureaucrats, within the National Health Service. A motion opposing these foundation hospitals was passed at the conference. That wont make any difference to government policy; but a possible Commons defeat over its plans to charge students some of the costs of a university education certainly would.

In the course of his speech, Mr Blair talked about the need for a government half way through its second term of office, and with every prospect of achieving a third term, to find the resources to renew itself. If that means more of what Mr Blair says he believes in, it will mean more competition between providers in health and education; looser Whitehall control on pretty much everything that goes on in the public sector, including greater powers for local government to raise money and decide what to do with it; an end to the centralisation of public-sector pay which means that teachers in expensive London get paid pretty much the same as teachers in western Scotland. Such changes would do the country a lot of good, and be fiercely resisted by the party and the unions.

Here lies Mr Blairs difficulty. Although the Labour Party made it clear this week that it is happy for him to be its leader, it has made it equally clear that it is unwilling to go where he wants to go. He says hes not reversing. The Labour Party doesnt want to go forward. Unless he can resolve that problem, Britain is not likely to go anywhere.

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