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EDITIONS
Thursday, 2 May, 2002, 22:46 GMT 23:46 UK
Waning of the new dawn?
Sunrise over London
The dawn of a new political era

Five years ago Tony Blair delayed his triumphant election victory speech on London's south bank so he could use the backdrop of a glorious sunrise to proclaim his "new dawn" for Britain.

It was emotional stuff for the handpicked audience of New Labour believers who genuinely thought they were heralding the start of a new era.

Prime Minister Tony Blair and family after 1997 election victory
Things could only get better
It was also typically New Labour - stage-managed to the nth degree, obsessed with how it would all look on the telly and with more than a whiff of near-religious revivalism about it.

Even the cynics, however, were forced to concede that Tony Blair's landslide victory marked a seismic shift, not only in politics, but in the way Britain viewed itself.

There was the widespread belief that this was the end of the allegedly greedy, self-obsessed, sleazy politics of Margaret Thatcher which had survived in government under John Major simply because Old Labour had been unelectable.

And there was a huge amount of goodwill towards the new administration.

Still waiting

No Labour government had ever been given such an opportunity to transform the country and great things were expected.

The slogan, "things can only get better", had dominated the election campaign and the millions who voted for the new-look party, many for the first time, waited in anticipation.

Five years on, however, many claim they are still waiting.

It is now argued that it was not until Gordon Brown's 2002 Budget that the New Labour government showed the sort of leadership, radicalism and courage normally born of massive majorities.

And inevitably, as the prime minister attempts not to make too much of his fifth anniversary, a reappraisal of the past half-decade is underway.

Once the immediate euphoria of the 1997 election victory wore off it became clear that the New Labour government was not about to frighten the horses.

Brown's prudence

Ministers were keen to stress the need for caution and the over riding aim of getting - or, as ex-Tory Chancellor Kenneth Clarke would claim, keeping - the economy sound.

This was "prudence for a purpose", as Mr Brown regularly reminded people.

There were a couple of early surprises, most notably independence for the Bank of England, a move which had never featured in the election manifesto or campaign.

Former minister Peter Mandelson
Mandelson sacked twice
And there was the Bernie Ecclestone 1 million donation which still haunts the party to this day.

Later there was the resignation from the frontbench of one of the party's creators, Peter Mandelson, in the "cash for homes" row.

But despite the early setbacks, the Prime Minister's personal standing remained at an unprecedented high and his government revelled in one of the longest political honeymoons ever recorded.

Mandy again

And much was achieved. Devolution, the beginnings of Lords reform, new labour laws, the minimum wage and transformed relations with Europe.

All this against a continuing background of low interest rates, falling unemployment and a sound economy.

Fuel tax protestors
Fuel protests hit government
But there were also the setbacks. Allegations of sleaze, ministerial resignations - Peter Mandelson again - a gradual sense of disappointment and disillusion and, finally, apathy.

There were rows over plans to cut benefits to vulnerable members of society, failure to radically reform welfare and stealth taxes.

Then there were the countryside and fuel tax protests, pensioner fury at a 75p annual increase and plummeting turnouts in elections.

The chrome plating flaked and, a year or so before the last election the honeymoon came to a resounding end.

Everything changed

The 2001 general election, however, showed New Labour was being given a second chance - and that the Tories were now the unelectable opposition.

But within weeks, the prime minister had run into a showdown with the public sector over his demands for reform.

Then 11 September changed everything.

Prime Minister Tony Blair
Blair's popularity slipping
Tony Blair was the first world leader to ride to America's side and offer unbending support for President Bush's war against terrorism .

It did his international standing a power of good and strengthened his hold on the government which, thanks to some careful reshuffles, was already dominated by Blairites.

But, once again, now that some of the dust has settled serious questions are being asked about his closeness to the Republican President and his apparent readiness to go to war against Iraq.

French Revolution

The fears of disillusion and disappointment are again surfacing and even the prime minister's personal standing looks to be on the slide.


Critics, however, would claim the entire New Labour project has been a failure and the Blair administrations a huge disappointment

Much now rests on the impact of Gordon Brown's Budget.

That aside, it is still difficult to pass judgement on five years of New Labour.

Supporters would point to the successes, dismiss the setbacks as "froth" and claim much has been achieved. More importantly, they might argue, the Tory rot was stopped.

Critics, however, would claim the entire New Labour project has been a failure and the Blair administrations a huge disappointment.

An historic opportunity to transform Britain in a way comparable to the changes wrought by Margaret Thatcher has been thrown away, they might argue.

As Mao Tse Tung once said when asked if he thought the French revolution had been a success: "It's too early to tell."


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