9 JUNE 2001, Page 8

As Mr Blair's problems begin, the Tories must refrain from suicidal infighting


Tony Blair will have enjoyed the final hours of the campaign, and so he should have. He would be wise to take every such opportunity that presents itself, for his problems start now, He will begin the new Parliament with two major liabilities: public dissatisfaction, and the public services.

Despite the polls and the vote, anyone who has travelled around the country during this election will be aware that Mr Blair's moral authority has been dramatically eroded. Millions of voters who used to admire him are now cynical. All this is still tinged with amusement, and he has won millions of cynics' votes. But from now on, he will not be able to rely on the voters patience, let alone their credulity. He will no longer be able to spin his way out of trouble, He will have to deliver, and not only that. He has committed himself to doing so in the most difficult of areas: health and education.

Mr Blair has a quality which one friendly columnist defined as 'managerial impatience', He knows that the present system is not delivering and that private-sector involvement is essential if higher standards are to be achieved. In principle, he is right, but there are two vast unsolved problems on the road to implementation.

The first is lack of thought. Mr Blair has no idea what private-sector involvement would mean in practice, or how to achieve it. The second is raised expectations. There are analogies with the privatisation of telecommunications, water and the railways. In each case, the first consequence was a heightening of discontent. All the defects of the existing systems were blamed on the privatisers. With telecoms and water, this sense of grievance took years to subside; on the railways, it might require decades. As for health and education, there is vast potential for an explosion of public wrath which could easily sweep away a government.

So Mr Blair has a grim choice. He can go into battle with a quarter thought-out plan of reform, which will meet shrewd and sustained resistance from the vested interests who now run health and education and who will deploy an array of intellectual and sentimental arguments against him — or he can give up. Either way, he faces the gravest electoral risks.

There is a further analogy, with the Major/Lamont counter-inflation measures of the early 1990s. They were well thoughtout and did work exactly as they were sup posed to. But the authors received none of the credit, which all went to Gordon Brown. Over the next four years, Tony Blair may well have to slog through the bloodiest and most unpopular phase of health and education reform, leaving the incoming Tory government to scoop the credit.

But that will only happen if the Tory opposition is able to exploit the government's weaknesses. This will only be possible if Mr Hague rectifies the basic strategic misjudgment which undermined his efforts over the past four years. Many of Mr Hague's friendly critics, including this writer, have complained about his failure to establish his intellectual identity. We were right, but most of us — certainly including me — were also guilty of outdated thinking and a lack of intellectual rigour. For decades, there had been a conventional wisdom that the Tories should always play down health and education during election campaigns, because they were inherently Labour issues. By talking about them, the Tories would raise their salience, which would help Labour. Tories might think that they would win arguments, but they would end up by losing votes.

In the old days, however, the Tories also had their own locked-up issues, especially the economy, defence and Labour lunacy, which more than compensated for weaknesses in health and education. That is no longer the case. Those topics have either disappeared from debates or they have become detribalised. So, to help them refine their intellectual identity, the Tories must try to detribalise health and education.

That will not be easy, but there is no alternative. Any Tory who still believes otherwise is behaving like a man who wakes up and discovers that he has a lump. He knows that he should go to his doctor, but he is worried about what he will discover. So he does nothing, in the hope that the lump will go away. That is how most Tories behaved in the last Parliament, and as a result the lump is larger; the surgery will be harder.

Even so the condition is not incurable. Another insight from the election campaign is that, on health, the public is much more sophisticated than most politicians realise. It will not be impossible to persuade large numbers of voters that the NI-IS needs to change. The problems will arise because the public will not understand how long that change will take, but that need not concern the opposition. While Mr Blair is in the Laocoonic coils of forcing through inadequately planned changes against the opposition of the professionals, the Tories will have their chance. They should be able to argue that the government is implementing the wrong changes in the wrong way, while being obsessed with authoritarianism and spinning. Those charges will have resonance with the public.

Mr Blair was not the only politician to enjoy the last hours of the campaign. So did the coven of Vichyite Tories. Messrs Clarke, Heseltine and Patten have spent the past four weeks sharpening daggers for William Hague's shoulder blades, with the first blows to be struck at 10.01 p.m. on Thursday. On one point, they are right. The Tories spent too much time on Europe to the exclusion of other topics. But this does not mean that Mr Hague should have failed to defend the pound, still less that he should cease to do so in the future.

Nor should he fear splits, or rather splinterings. Some issues are so fundamental that they require a parting of the ways. There is now no room in the high councils of the Tory party for anyone who would like to abolish the pound. There is no room anywhere in the party for anyone who would like to undermine its efforts to save the pound. There should be zero tolerance for senior Tories who will now be co-ordinating their euro campaign with Tony Blair's, and who remain in the party with the sole purpose of weakening it.

There should also be zero tolerance for leadership faction fights. Mr Hague has had a good campaign, and there is no obvious alternative. He has made mistakes over the past four years, but he has also earned the chance to prove that he has learnt from those mistakes. One might have thought that the past decade's defeats might have persuaded even the most dimwitted of Tories that the party does not profit by becoming a serial killer of its own leaders, and that it should not behave like the Nepalese royal family. But one should never underestimate the difficulties of dimwit control in the Tory party. That remains a vital task, for there is one conclusion to be drawn from recent political events and forthcoming political troubles. There is only one force that can prevent the Tory party winning the next general election: the Tory party.