The Blair question

It was the question that, according to legend, the little girl asked of Neville Chamberlain's unprepossessing Chancellor, Sir John Simon: "What is that man for, Daddy?" Now, as our political editor reports (page 21), the question is asked of the more likeable Tony Blair. If it was rarely asked in the past, it was because the answer was so obvious. Mr Blair, stupid, is for winning elections and keeping the Tories out. Others in the Labour Party might have - how can it be put? - more political bottom and more rapport with the movement and the comrades. They might even, in a good year, win an election, particularly in Scotland. But only Mr Blair could reliably sweep the English suburbs; only he seemed to have an instinct for the G-spot of those who own Barratt homes or Mondeo cars.

So does Labour no longer want to win elections? The question is not entirely fatuous. Some in the party feel (though never say it publicly) that by 2005, after eight years in power, Labour would benefit from leaving office and regaining its soul. There is a case to be made that two terms is about right for a centre-left government, and that (with the Scandinavian countries and the US in the unusual period from 1932 to 1952 the most significant exceptions) this was the usual pattern for western democracies in the 20th century. Government involves compromises; radical government, struggling against vested interests, is inevitably exhausting. A centre-left party, therefore, needs a period in opposition to recharge its batteries, to fan the embers of its radical passion.

Whatever the merits of this argument, it does not apply to new Labour in 2003. We are closer to 1945 than to 1951. Mr Blair's government has been radical only in fits and starts, and often in a curiously passionless way. He has led a sort of coalition government in which, while there are no actual Tories, many ministers and particularly the PM himself have given a passable imitation of Toryism. By 2005, it will be time to see if the country will tolerate a proper Labour administration governing, as it were, alone. In due course, Mr Blair can be told - in terms more polite than those used by Cromwell to the Rump Parliament - that he has been here long enough for the good he has been doing. It can be pointed out to him that the US, a country he so much admires, thinks two terms quite enough for its leaders.

Will the country tolerate his almost certain successor, Gordon Brown? The same doubts attend Mr Brown as attended John Smith. The worldly-wise always thought Mr Smith would contrive to lose an election (and had indeed actually lost one in 1992) because he was too Scottish, too dour, too demanding, too preoccupied with figures and too obviously keen on taxation. Mr Brown is seen as the same sort of person, only with more hair. But it is Mr Brown who has presided over the government's most undisputed achievement and biggest electoral asset: a sound economy and a mood of prosperity. Indeed, now that Mr Blair has lost so much public trust over the Iraq war, Mr Brown is probably the better bet for elections. Paradoxically, Mr Blair looks a rather dangerous, unpredictable figure, given to foolish foreign adventures and silly schemes for turning public services upside down. Mr Brown appears to offer safety and continuity, since his sole obvious ambition in life is to fiddle with tax allowances and credits in ways that nobody understands.

The reality is that a Brown government would have a sense of purpose that Blair governments lack. This is partly because it would no longer be a coalition government: the extent to which ministerial schemes become frustrated by the need to get approval from both the rival poles of power in the Treasury and No 10 is not widely understood outside Whitehall. But more important, it is because Mr Brown, like Margaret Thatcher but unlike Mr Blair, has a focus. In the Thatcher governments, everyone in Whitehall understood that any policy development had to address the question: "Can we create a market?" A Brown government, if the Chancellor's conduct of the Treasury is any guide, would constantly address the question: "How can we reduce poverty and promote more equality?" Stripped of its collectivist baggage, Labour is now better equipped for the answers than at any time in its history. But Mr Blair lacks such clarity of purpose, with the result that all sorts of fancy ideas get an airing, without rhyme or reason and usually without result.

Mr Brown is as fallible as any other politician - he has an unhealthy weakness for private finance initiatives and for Americans - and his government would in no sense be an old Labour one. But history may see the radical watershed of our age - fit to rank with 1906 and 1945 - not as 1997, but as 2005.

Danger! Exam reformers at work

Some things take time to build: Rome, suspension bridges, cathedrals, bestselling Indian novels, railway lines from the east to the west of London. But school examination schemes? Mike Tomlinson, a former chief inspector of schools who has been asked by ministers to review exams, has proposed scrapping GCSEs and A-levels. They would be replaced by a single diploma, at four levels of difficulty, for young people aged 14 to 19. First impressions are that this overdue reform is more or less what teachers have demanded for about 30 years. The National Union of Teachers, however, says it wants at least a decade's notice of any change, reforming exams being "a high-risk business". One would not wish anything to be done in haste, but we wonder what would have happened if the NUT had been asked to oversee anything a tad more risky, such as a mission to the moon or a 16th-century voyage across the Atlantic?

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