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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 18 June, 2003, 16:17 GMT 17:17 UK
Blair tries to re-energise government
Tony Blair
Battered by accusations that he botched reshuffling his cabinet, buffeted by the claim that he didn't address the euro issue so much as ignore it, the Prime Minister tried to get back to basics.

His government was radical, reforming and dynamic, he said, and would press ahead with reforms with the aim of making them irreversible.

The Tories said it was his ninth attempt to relaunch his government.

Jeremy Paxman discussed Tony Blair's attempt to re-energise his government with Labour MP James Purnell, the Shadow Home Secretary Oliver Letwin and Peter Kilfoyle who was a Government Minister 1997 to 2000.


JEREMY PAXMAN:
Peter Kilfoyle, what do you think has gone wrong?

PETER KILFOYLE:
The Prime Minister is caught between a rock and a hard place. The rock being middle England, middle class. They seem to be particularly affected by the Gulf War and all that's come out of the Iraq war. I think that for our core supporters there are two elements. One is delivery, or what they perceive as a lack of delivery in key areas. The second one is this whole question of trust again. I recall well for example, when you cross-examined the Prime Minister in the 2001 election and you asked him eight times about redistribution of wealth. That is not in the Prime Minister's lexicon and that's fine but it is for a lot of our core supporters. There is a distance between some of the messages which come from the Prime Minister and many of our supporters.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
James Purnell, can you in a sentence define for us what Blairism is?

JAMES PURNELL:
I think what he was saying today is we inherited a far too unequal society from the Conservatives. He wants to create a more equal society. The way you do that is by giving people economic opportunity but also by reforming public services. Public services have served the middle classes well but failed to serve the poor. To change that we have to change the welfare state.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
So it is more equal and it is reformed.

JAMES PURNELL:
That is the way that you gain on equality. The goals are the same.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
Greater than the previously existing inequality?

JAMES PURNELL:
I would like a society where someone born into a council estate has the same chance in life as someone born into a mansion in Kensington and we can do that.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
Oliver Letwin would probably say that wouldn't you?

OLIVER LETWIN:
Yes.

JAMES PURNELL:
The way that you do it is by reforming the welfare state. The Conservatives this week have flunked that. They have been trying to get onto our territory saying that they support creating equality of opportunity. Under pressure, having given up their vow of silence on Europe, they say they want to get out of Europe.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
Oliver Letwin, you belong to a party that has been here in a much, much worse state than this Government is currently in, what do you think has gone wrong?

OLIVER LETWIN:
I think there are two things going on. One of them is every Government over a certain period faces difficulties. This one has had a rather accelerated course towards fracture and difficulty but it is in part just what does happen to governments. The other side is deeper. Which is there is an incoherence here about the Blairite project. It came out fairly clearly today and has done in the past few weeks. You can perfectly reasonably take a view, that the answer on public services is lots of money, and central control to try and make it effective which is what this Government has so far done or you can take the view that the answer is choice and openness and letting the professionals get on with job and letting public services be more responsive to customers which is the view we take and which the Prime Minister speaks about. You can't actually do one, talk about the other without creating incoherence and that incoherence is damaging. We have a health service today which treats nobody more than it did before, costs 30% more by the end of this parliament, has 20,000 more administrators, more administrators than beds. It doesn't work.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
Peter Kilfoyle, how much do you think this is a personal problem with the Prime Minister, to a degree he is not uninterested, but less interested than he might have been at other times, because of how long he has been in Downing Street?

PETER KILFOYLE:
Following on from what Oliver said, there is a period in any prime ministership where prime ministers look for a bigger stage, the international stage. That can be a big distraction. It is even more of a distraction when you are not of the tribe that you lead anyway. The difficulties within the party are those of somebody that is, if you like, outside of what I would argue are the traditional values and beliefs and convictions which lends the coherence that Oliver would allege is lacking in this particular Government at the moment.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
Do you think there's a battle going on, as it were, to use the old cliché, for the soul of the party?

JAMES PURNELL:
What we have to convince the party and the public of is we want to create a fairer society and we are going to do something about it.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
You have had six years in Government, that is the problem

JAMES PURNELL:
And we have lifted half a million people out of poverty. The point is we are increasing public spending by putting up taxes, no-one would have believed that six years ago. The economy is going well. Public services are starting to turn the corner. We have to win hearts and minds.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
Why are people disenchanted with the Prime Minister?

JAMES PURNELL:
After six years we are still ahead in the polls. The key test will be in the next election. It would have been amazing if someone had said six years ago, you would have been ahead of the polls for ten years. People would have been amazed by it.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
It is a fair point. We won't taunt Oliver Letwin too much, but it's pathetic that after six years you are not even on terms with the Government?

OLIVER LETWIN:
We've had terrible problems. We acknowledge that. What is now happening is that as we begin to regain some clarity about where we are going and some idea of how we would govern this country as a result of a prolonged period of opposition, at that very time, the Government is running into the sands because it's not actually delivering. That is the normal progress of democracy. I think the pity of it is that there were some things which could have been achieved in these six years by agreement. For example, welfare reform. We could have really serious welfare reform. Frank Field set out to do something noble and diminish means testing, we could have had that, the Government hasn't done that. We could have had a proper use of the money, which the Government has found for the NHS, to its credit, we could have it used in such a way that we had a better NHS after six years, we don't. The fact is that these six years haven't been like the first six years of the Thatcher Government when we actually transformed this country and started bringing it back into being wealthy again.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
You mention Mrs Thatcher. Mrs Thatcher for good or ill, and many thought for ill, and many thought for good, she had a profound influence on politics right across the board on every side of the political spectrum. Has Blair and Blairism had a similar impact? Peter Kilfoyle?

PETER KILFOYLE:
I think not. I think actually one of the strange things about the phenomenon that we now describe as Blairism, was new Labour, is that they prided themselves on presentation. Certainly in opposition it was a very effective skill for an opposition to have in approaching government and in the early days of government. But, in fact, they've been remarkably poor in their presentational skills in government, even with good things. And very often it's given rise to a belief in people that people in government are being more deceitful than they actually are. They've actually had a negative effect in my view on the public's perception of politicians and politics. The big danger of that is the alienation from the political process itself and I think you will find, you were asking Dougie Alexander earlier about the election after next, I think the consistent feature you will see are lower and lower polls as more and more people are turned off politics. If that's going be the legacy of new Labour it's not something I would want to crow about. JEREMY PAXMAN:
That's quite something to lay at the door of your own party, isn't it? Disenchantment with politics has been going on for a long time.

PETER KILFOYLE:
It really has but it seems to have taken on a new pace. We only have to look at the figures for turnout in elections, particularly at a time when we are possibly having more elections in more part of the country too.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
James, do you think this is, to use the horrible American cliché, some sort of tipping point we are seeing here?

JAMES PURNELL:
I think there is a change happening, which is the Government is becoming more confident about change. And about saying what it wants to do. What is happening...

JEREMY PAXMAN:
That is not quite what I had in mind. Is the tipping point when it goes from strength to strength, is it? An even bigger majority at the next election?

JAMES PURNELL:
You make changes. You get opposition. The forces of Conservative and Liberal Democrats don't change. If you look at the speech that the Prime Minister made today. I think it is a more radical speech than people expected him to make five or six years ago. He said the welfare state has not delivered sufficiently for the poor, and that is a big change for us. I think it is a radical direction we are going in.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
I think we had better revisit this quite shortly. Thank you all very much.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Jeremy Paxman
discussed if Tony Blair has what it will take to salvage the new Labour project?
Links to more Archive stories are at the foot of the page.


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