Lansley, Blair and the normalisation myth

Will the health reforms play out as the ex-PM describes? Unlikely.

Well known students of the Tony Blair playbook, David Cameron and his inner circle doubtless have committed the following passages to memory. Taken from the former prime minister's autobiography, A Journey, it recalls an earlier battle with domestic legislation, this time the introduction of university top-up fees in 2003-04.

Blair wrote of those difficulties:

It is an object lesson in the progress of reform; the change is proposed; it is denounced as a disaster; it proceeds with vast chipping away and opposition; it is unpopular; it comes about; within a short space of time, it is as if it had always been so.

He went on:

Rereading the daily news about the changes, I am struck by how fevered each story was at the time, and how forgotten each story is today.

Blair's take is this: a. change can be unpopular but, hey, that's leadership; b. the media obsesses about the minutiae of a revolt but, in time, can barely remember what all the fuss was about; and c. reform, once brought about, becomes the new status quo, the new normality.

All of which should provide some comfort to the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley and his boss. After all, the passage of the Health and Social Care Bill appears -- so far at least -- to have followed the script.

Almost daily, it has been the subject of bad headlines. Take the last week: the uninvited Downing Street guests; the Lansley ambush by a protestor; the inevitable intervention from Tim Farron; and, today, a letter in the Sunday Telegraph that's at once both fawning and a deliberate snub to the Health Secretary.

The bill has led to unpopularity. Having worked hard to repair the Conservatives reputation on health prior to the election, Cameron now finds his party trailing Labour by 15 points as the one that has the "the best approach to the NHS". Moreover, just 20 per cent of voters believe that the health service is "safe in David Cameron's hands". (It is now difficult to believe that in late April 2010, on the eve of the General Election, the Tories led on the management of the NHS).

But if we stick with the Blair diagnosis, Cameron and Lansley need only plough on and the bill will become an act; and life will move on.

This presupposes, however, that the narrative reflects reality.

For every example that seems to bear it out -- such as Margaret Thatcher's council house sell off, hugely contentious at the time but part of the political consensus by the beginning of the 1990s -- there are others that do not, such as the disastrous introduction of the poll tax by the same prime minister.

Or how about the subject Blair writes about, university funding?

Blair's own troubles with tuition fees were not just about hostility towards the policy, they stemmed from an apparent abandonment of a manifesto pledge to do nothing of the kind. There are echoes here of Nick Clegg's own tuition fees U-turn but, more pertinently, of Cameron's promise of "no more top down reorganisations" of the NHS.

Blair's bill passed, thanks to the largesse of his plotting chancellor, and he went on to win a third election in 2005. Yet, nobody can seriously suggest that university funding stopped being a politically contentious issue in 2004.

Meanwhile, Cameron always knew Lansley's bill would be problematic -- declaring "we're fucked" on being briefed on it in May 2010. He'll hope that Blair's narrative plays out and that changes to the NHS will seem as if they had "always been so".

Just don't bet on it.


Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.