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 Monday, 22 April, 2002, 05:25 GMT 06:25 UK
Judge me on NHS challenge - Blair
Tony Blair being interviewed by David Frost
Tony Blair is trying to sell the Budget tax changes
Prime Minister Tony Blair has said he is ready to be judged on the state of the health service, as he urged voters to look at Labour's track record of meeting key promises.

Speaking on BBC One's Breakfast with Frost programme, he compared the drive to improve healthcare in Britain with Margaret Thatcher's 1980s industrial reforms.

If it fails, I will carry the can but I believe it won't

Tony Blair
Mr Blair rejected claims that he was returning to an old-style "tax and spend" agenda, saying the "vast bulk" of middle class voters backed the plans to put more money into the NHS.

The Conservatives accuse ministers of not knowing how to improve the NHS, while Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy says Mr Blair has fuelled "cynicism" in politics by breaking his promises.

In a wide-ranging interview, the prime minister also said the current Middle East conflict was "driving a wedge between some sections of the Arab world and the west".

But those divisions could be healed by relaunching the political process that was essential for peace, said Mr Blair.


It is domestic concerns, however, that top his agenda.

Two opinion polls for Sunday newspapers suggest public support for last week's Budget.

An ICM poll for the Sunday Telegraph suggests 76% of voters approved of the 1% rise in National Insurance (NI) contributions, with 19% against.

A separate YouGov poll for the Sunday Times shows 52% of those questioned said they backed the Budget, with 26% against.

But only 18% thought the NI rise would produce a major improvement in the NHS - 56% said it would lead to a small difference and 24% no change.

Surgeons during an operation in a British hospital
The NHS faces huge reform, says Tony Blair
Both polls also suggest most people believe Labour has broken an election promise not to raise income tax.

That view was shared by 58% of those questioned by YouGov (with 35% saying it had kept to the pledge) and by 56% in the ICM poll (against 35%).

ICM questioned 1,004 people on Thursday and Friday, with YouGov's survey conducted online with 2,840 over the same period.

Mr Blair insisted Labour had not broken its pledge on income tax.


And he cited those polls as evidence that the public realised they had to pay for better hospitals.

Asked how big a risk he was taking by raising taxes, he replied: "There is a challenge. It is a big thing. It is as big as the industrial restructuring in the 1980s was for the Thatcher government."

Mr Blair added: "If it fails, I will carry the can, I've said that, but I believe it won't."

Michael Howard, shadow chancellor
Conservatives like Michael Howard saying ministers are ducking real change
Economic stability, lower unemployment and better schools were key evidence of Labour's track record of setting targets it could meet, he said.

Mr Blair's comparison with the Thatcher years may provoke criticism from trade unions, who are also worried about involved private companies in the NHS.

Mr Blair said he was prepared to "take on" the unions but stressed he was not "spoiling for a fight with anyone".

Government critics see the Budget as a return to an old Labour agenda.

But Mr Blair insisted his government was pursuing a programme of "invest and reform".

"Without the reform it would not be wise to put those sums of money in but there is huge reform going into the health service," he said.

Mr Blair refused to rule out a repeat of last week's tax rises, although he said those changes had funded the government's NHS plans.

Trust worries

He could not write the next Budget now, he said.

Conservative Party chairman David Davis accused Mr Blair of "silly semantics" in trying to deny he had broken tax promises.

"If he wants to go on denying it then he will just persuade the British public that he is either disingenuous or dishonest," Mr Davis told BBC News.

Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy said Mr Blair should have "come clean" over raising tax at the election.

Noting growing mistrust in politicians, he added: "Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have a lot to answer for in fuelling that cynicism."

  The BBC's John Pienaar
"Tony Blair has got a lot of persuading to do"
  Prime Minister Tony Blair
"If it fails, I will carry the can but I believe it won't"
  Conservative shadow chancellor Michael Howard
"Without change, we won't see the difference that we all want to see"

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See also:

21 Apr 02 | Health
21 Apr 02 | Health
21 Apr 02 | Politics
20 Apr 02 | Politics
18 Apr 02 | Politics
18 Apr 02 | Politics
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