Lights Go Out in Blair Bunker

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Campbell‘s departure is unlikely to halt the repackaging of privatisation.

With the ’dodgy dossiers‘ on Iraq in tatters and indeed the entire Blairite project heading for meltdown, now might be a useful point to turn attention to how the government‘s case for privatisation is being repackaged. Just like the war, it continues to be advocated at every available turn, despite overwhelming opposition from the general public.

The big problem is that virtually all of the arguments put up in favour of flagship policies, like PFI initiatives and foundation hospitals, have always been so far removed from the gut instincts of most ordinary people that you can only make any sense of them at all if you are prepared to ditch every last grain of principle, and perform the most excruciating mental gymnastics.

With Alastair Campbell out of the way as well, it says a lot about an administration in terminal decline that the best Blair can come up with is to once more prise open the coffin lid of the Prince of Darkness, Peter Mandelson, and pass the job of sexing up the arguments that nobody wants to hear to a pair of old-time political bruisers like Charles Clarke and John Reid (the replacements for Estelle Morris and Alan Milburn).

Apart from Jack Straw, David Blunkett and, of course, Tony B.Liar, currently the most stupefying adept of contorted New Labour reasoning must surely be Clarke. Despite a (taxpayer-funded) university education of his own, Clarke is now the one being put up to convince us that the way to tackle elitism in higher education is to increase the charge on university entrance threefold, to £3,000 a year - and thereby provide a surefire incentive for all working class parents.

A bit scarier is John Reid - who for some reason seems able to frighten the life out of Labour MPs but who really does come across as being as mad as a box of frogs. He is the one with the unenviable task of explaining why foundation hospitals are a good idea at the same time as hinting that anybody who doesn‘t agree could be in big trouble.

In a typically New Labour turn of phrase, Reid‘s predecessor, Milburn, had got into the habit of describing the NHS as ’the Aeroflot of the international health service‘. Listening to Reid is no less of an unsavoury experience - when he starts going on about the need for ’local empowerment‘, it‘s a bit like being cornered in the boozer by a Rab C Nesbitt lookalike, trying to offload of a bag of Temazepam on the grounds that it cuts waiting time, increases consumer choice and assists local access to services within the NHS.

Despite the resort to the tough guys, Clarke and Reid are shrewd enough to realise that their job is actually to mount a desperate rearguard action. They are only too well aware that the government‘s stock is now at such a low level after Hutton and an increasingly dire situation in Iraq, that there would be about as much point to these attempts to refloat flagship policies as there would have been to rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic.

So at the same time as Clarke tries to put the frighteners on with his Fungus the Bogeyman impression, he has also been quietly admitting to schoolteachers and heads that it was actually the government which was to blame for the colossal cock-up over school funding at the beginning of last year - which led to several thousand teaching posts not being filled and which Clarke at the time blamed on everybody else.

Away from the spotlight, Reid has also dropped his ’see you, Jimmy‘ stance in dealings with the British Medical Association and has quietly been making major concessions to hospital consultants in the hope of heading off a threat of national strike action.

And, in a move which has sent the CBI and Daily Telegraph into a terrible froth, Blair has finally given in to pressure from the TUC that - if he has to have even the slightest hope of saving his own neck - union leaders are going to have to be treated with a bit more respect. Hence the hilarious sight of Bill Morris of the TGWU, Roger Lyons of Amicus, outgoing TUC president Nigel de Gruchy, and TUC general secretary Brendan Barber, striding into Number Ten with the look of men who had just got away with a highly successful bank raid.

But this is unlikely to get Blair off the hook. The creation of a new Public Services Forum as a mechanism for regular discussion of public service issues between union leaders and ministers is an ominous step, which will get some top union leaders back onto what they regard as their rightful pedestal. It might also provide a temporary lifeline for the government.

In a carefully timed interview with all the major newspapers published a few days after the Downing Street armistice was declared, and in the week before the TUC congress, Brendan Barber was making it clear he saw his job as one of 'constructiveness, caution and conciliation' and - in a less than subtle dig at the 'awkward squad' - that the job of the union movement should be 'about getting on as well as getting even'.

But whether the setting up of this conduit can provide anything more than a stopgap is quite another matter. Leaving aside that the lies told over Iraq have put the Blair coterie in the antechamber to political oblivion, it is also clear that most of them still just don't get it.

The underlying reason for the mighty upsurge of awkwardness at both the TUC and the Labour Party conferences is not that the government 'hasn't gone far enough' with public sector reform. Like the war, most people think that they have already gone way too far. And that's why these policies are absolutely detested by the people who work in the NHS, in schools and universities, in local authorities and in the civil service.

For most of the people working in these sectors, it was quite enough to be ground down by endless management-speak during 18 years of Tory rule, without having to go through a secondary pounding under 'New' Labour.

To have this compounded by the impact of privatisation on the railways, the collapse of people's pensions, the insult of fat cat pay and now blackouts on the National Grid is what has brought Blair to the brink of his richly deserved comeuppance. The future is bright - the future's not Blairite!