Government backbenchers appear in unruly mood

 

LONDON LETTER/Frank Millar: They think it's all over. Or so, at any rate, you might deduce from the latest Westminster frenzy.

"The Red Rose of New Labour has wilted and died," proclaims one pro-Gordon Brown commentator, as a mood of Labour revolt fills the air. Over Iraq, the latest Railtrack U-turn, jobs lost at Consignia, workers rights threatened by public/private partnerships, and Prime Minister Blair's fraternisation with right-wing European leaders like Silvio Berlusconi - Labour backbenchers are in fractious form.

From the Left come dark murmurings about a possible "stalking horse" challenge, designed to rein-in "President" Blair's leadership style if not, actually, to hand the top job to Chancellor Brown. From the moderate centre, too, Mr Blair is warned to heed the clamour of complaint or face "disaster".

One MP barely heard of beyond the Westminster village raises himself to hand the prime minister a yellow card and an explicit threat that he could find himself off the team altogether if he doesn't raise his game.

Decoded that means deferring more to the backbenchers, many of whom hated the New Labour construct to begin with, and still more of whom would never have found themselves elected without the Mandelson makeover.

The latest to speak out, John McDonnell MP, was having none of that yesterday as he pronounced on the growing detachment of the Labour leadership from the party.

Indeed under Mr Blair, he complained, Labour was pursuing some of the very policies which had cost the Conservatives power in 1997.

It may remain a cardinal rule of politics: "Oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them."

However, the alternative governing party needs to prove itself credible and appealing to the electorate.

Many believe it was John Smith's budget plans, seeming to confirm Labour as a high tax and spend party, which enabled John Major to snatch a seemingly impossible fourth Tory term in 1992.

And however Labour MPs might persuade themselves now, few outside observers believe Gordon Brown's personality or pulling power would have reflected in anything like the scale of victory commanded by Mr Blair in 1997.

Indeed the chancellor - who manages to maintain a masterful silence on many of the difficult issues building outside the door of Number 10 - is expected to take the government on to decidedly non-New Labour territory with next month's Budget, challenging a 20-year Thatcherite consensus that voters are only prepared to see taxes move in a downward direction.

As it happens, the government appears to be winning public opinion round to the view that necessary "investment" in the National Health Service would justify a tax hike.

The potential problem - apart from convincing voters that investment is not simply a euphemism for ever-more money poured into a bottomless pit - is that, since Health reasserted itself at the top of the government's agenda, other public controversies have given competing claims from other departments equal urgency.

The Blairite favourite of the moment, Home Secretary David Blunkett, has already served public notice that he expects more money to battle rising street crime.

And Mr Blair himself has set the scene for what could prove an interesting tussle between the chancellor and a defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, who has to provide the troops and equipment to make reality of the prime minister's global undertakings.

Threatened war with Iraq suggests the most potent possibility for a major divergence between Mr Blair and the party he leads.

However, the prime minister has barely begun making the case for action against Saddam Hussein in the context of Iraq's threat to British peace and security.

In the meantime, the government has moved to head-off trade union concerns about the rights of workers, and comparability of pay and conditions, in public/private partnerships.

At the same time John Prescott appeared conscious of the risk in opening too many flanks of opposition yesterday, by acknowledging the "legitimate concerns" of backbenchers about Iraq and a range of other issues.

Mr Prescott, however, was his usual bullish self in dismissing the possibility of a challenge to Mr Blair - not least because Labour's rules make it virtually impossible while the party remains in office.

The bullishness might also be explained by the knowledge that two less-than-disastrous opinion polls for the Tories (putting Labour's lead between nine and seven points) equally served to underline how far Mr Duncan Smith's party has still to travel.

Margaret Thatcher trailed Labour by 10 points in 1986, just after the Westland affair and a year before her third election triumph.

Despite his difficulties, and after nearly five years in power, Mr Blair has not yet fallen behind in a single poll.