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Last Updated: Friday, 26 September, 2003, 15:40 GMT 16:40 UK
Follow Thatcher example, Blair told
Margaret Thatcher
Milburn and Byers both praise Thatcher's political conviction
Two former cabinet ministers have urged the prime minister to show Margaret Thatcher's sense of purpose amid fears that Labour's message has become lost.

Former Health Secretary Alan Milburn said the government appeared to be "drifting" and it needed a "return to conviction politics".

Now, more than ever, Tony Blair has to spell out New Labour's purpose
Alan Milburn

Speaking out for the first time since resigning from the cabinet in June, Mr Milburn argued that just as Baroness Thatcher had shifted the political centre to the right, so Mr Blair could move the debate to the left.

In what looked like a coordinated move from fellow Blairites, former Transport Secretary Stephen Byers also pressed Mr Blair to follow the Thatcher example and start setting the political agenda again.

The prime minister is said to have asked the two ex-ministers to seek out ideas for Labour's next election manifesto.

'Get off the defensive'

Mr Byers compared Labour's current problems to the Westland crisis which prompted Michael Heseltine's resignation.

He wrote in the Independent newspaper: "Margaret Thatcher held her nerve and came out fighting...

"While it is unlikely there will be an election in 2004, Labour must adopt the same approach.

"We have been on the defensive; now is the time to begin setting the political agenda once again."

Alan Milburn
Milburn resigned to spend more time with his family

Mr Milburn says Mr Blair should spell out New Labour's vision for Britain because the public wants to know where the government is taking the public.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the government had the chance to "reshape the political landscape" in the way that only the Attlee and Thatcher governments had done before, he said.

"Over the last year, self-evidently big issues - taking the country to war, the whole issue of Iraq, the tragedy of Dr Kelly - have crowded out the whole of the domestic agenda.

"But sometimes we focused more on the day to day, sometimes on the how rather than the why and in the end politics exists for a purpose and politics is about a purpose.

"Mrs Thatcher had that purpose. She shifted the political centre of gravity to the right. Our purpose in politics is shifting the centre of gravity to the left, to move it back towards Labour's values of social justice and fairness and opportunity for all."

'Hurley burley'

Key reforms, such as foundation hospitals and tuition fees, should go ahead, but the government had to explain why it was introducing such policies, said Mr Milburn.

Sometimes the message had been lost in the daily "hurley burley of politics", he said.

Despite last week's "bloody nose" at the Brent East by-election, Mr Milburn was still optimistic about Labour's prospects under Mr Blair and did not think the prime minister had lost public trust.

"Tony Blair almost uniquely combines what the country needs nowadays to face the challenges of the future. You need a leader, a prime minister who has compassion but also strength...

"He scares the pants off our political opponents. Why? Because he's head and shoulders above any other politician, in my view, in or out of the cabinet."

That was because Mr Blair combined an absolute passion about implementing Labour's values with the recognition that things had to be done in a quite different way, said Mr Milburn.

'Fog of doubt'

His comments came as the prime minister faces potentially damaging revolts from unions and grass roots Labour members at the party's annual conference next week.

In an article in the Guardian newspaper, Mr Milburn said: "Labour is at a crossroads. Beneath the fog of doubt overhanging Tony Blair in the wake of Iraq is a sense that his government is drifting and lacks purpose.

"Some say we need a renewed sense of purpose. Others that we should claw our way back through competent administration.

"We should choose the first. Labour is in power to change things, not keep them the same. Transformation not consolidation...above all the public wants to know where we are taking the country."

Mr Milburn, who was one of Mr Blair's key allies while in office, praised the prime minister's talk of boldness.

But he said: "Now, more than ever, Tony Blair has to spell out New Labour's purpose. He has to communicate our values and vision for Britain."

In a speech on Friday, former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson said the government was currently in "politically choppy water" but Mr Blair would not duck the real challenges because of adversity.




SEE ALSO:
Milburn quits as health secretary
12 Jun 03  |  Politics


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