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Monday, 5 June, 2000, 11:54 GMT 12:54 UK
Sawyer attack eclipses health summit
Former Labour General Secretary Tom Sawyer
Tom Sawyer's attack is the most serious yet
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder.

Just as Tony Blair is attempting to seize back the political agenda with his health summit, yet another senior party figure has launched a biting attack on his leadership.

Lord Tom Sawyer - one of the principal architects of New Labour - has joined former ministers Mark Fisher and Peter Kilfoyle in claiming there is widespread disillusionment with the government in general and his premiership in particular.

He said Mr Blair was in danger of losing touch with the electorate, and he compared him unfavourably to former Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

When Baroness Thatcher was in her prime, there was a feeling that "she was very close to the people", he said.

"In a sense, people don't feel that about Tony, they think he is very competent and very professional but he's not `our Tony' really, and that's what he's got to get."

He also claimed the problem was worse within the Labour Party itself.

Workers undervalued

"The party is a bigger problem than the voters, I sense," he said.

"Tony Blair's ratings with the voters are still pretty good but his standing in the party isn't very good, and it was badly damaged over the London Mayor and the Welsh Assembly."

The former party general secretary also claimed ordinary party workers felt isolated from the leadership and undervalued.

It is hard to overestimate the seriousness of Mr Sawyer's assault. He is one of Labour's most senior figures and has previously heaped praise on Mr Blair - notably from the party conference platform.

Both Mr Kilfoyle and Mr Fisher could be dismissed by the spin doctors as men who still resented the fact that their ministerial careers were not advanced by Mr Blair.

Lord Sawyer is a different kettle of fish and his criticisms have effectively given the green light to others within the party to attack Mr Blair.

Election pledge

His words came just before the prime minister was hosting a second NHS summit aimed at hammering out radical new initiatives to reform the service.

Labour was elected in 1997 partly on a pledge to save the NHS but it has appeared to stumble from one crisis to another since then.

Many are now claiming that, three years on, the prime minister is being forced to hold summits aimed at fulfilling that election pledge.

Critics argue the summits and the soon-to-be-published national plan for the NHS smacks of panic.

Mr Blair, however, is eager to be seen taking over the NHS reforms as the clearest possible sign that the government is putting it top of the political agenda.

That carries the huge risk that, if there is not a measurable improvement in the service between now and the next election, Mr Blair will take the blame.

The NHS is also precisely the type of area where those attacking the prime minister believe he has lost ground with the electorate and Labour supporters.

And it now appears that there is a growing campaign at the highest level within the party to persuade him to change tack before the next election.

The first signals from Downing Street are that the government is not about to change course and will continue to hammer home the message that it has achieved much, but there is still more to do.

What worries the critics is that the message is not getting through and, with the next election looming, there is precious little time left to turn the tide of disillusion.

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05 Jun 00 | Health
Priorites set for NHS reform
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