McBlair sharpens his axe

Not all the performers, prima donnas, posers, buskers and comedians have left Edinburgh with the end of the festival. The year-round Theatre of the Absurd reopened on 3 September in the Scottish Parliament, but the coming season will see a shift to more serious drama.

Most people missed the message, but the First Minister, Henry McLeish, has indicated a shake-up of his cabinet in the next few weeks and warned his ministers and officials that, from now until the Scottish Parliament election in May 2003, he wants "delivery, delivery, delivery".

Expect the Scottish Executive to push through the reform of Scotland's debt-ridden public housing, starting with a tenants' referendum on the handover of Glasgow's 90,000 council houses to a combination of community and private finance control. Expect, too, an extension of public-private partnership in the NHS, education, prisons and transport. And expect, above all, a come-hell-or-high-water implementation of McLeish's personal promise to pay for the long-term care of the elderly, which will put the Scottish administration at odds with the UK government and will divide Scottish Labour over the prospect of paying for the well-heeled as well as the poor.

Some members of McLeish's cabinet, including the Health Minister, Susan Deacon, believe that the last is impracticable. Members of McLeish's team insist the budget figures add up, but admit they may not in ten years' time. Because of the ageing population, the cost could double in 20 years and rise to £600m in 50 years.

Those ministers who want to water down the commitment do not realise how important it is to McLeish, who will stand or fall by it. This was underlined in a speech to mark the new session: "We are determined to spare older people and their families the catastrophic cost of long-term illness. Why should people with dementia or stroke have to pay the costs of their care when we don't ask people with more acute illness, such as cancer or heart disease, to pay the cost of theirs?"

The same speech defined the "aims and values" of the McLeish administration - a ditching of doctrines in favour of expediency, best described as "McBlairism". Those ministers who do not subscribe to "McBlairism" are likely to be reshuffled or sacked. In a blatantly Blairite passage, the First Minister spoke with the Prime Minister's voice: "What matters is what works. In any conflict between pragmatism and ideology, pragmatism will always prevail."

And McLeish, who is himself sponsored by a public service union, could not have been more Tony-esque in a pro-PPP passage aimed at trade unions and local councils: "The interests of consumers should be put before those of producers. Even the best of the traditional public services could lose sight of their main goal - to serve the public - and often did."

The First Minister has already held individual meetings with ministers to review their portfolios and performances. Whatever he said was enough to send several of them scuttling back to their supporters to prepare for a bout of infighting.

Because the health ministry is so crucial, Susan Deacon will be the highest-profile member of the Scottish cabinet to be moved. The Transport Minister, Sarah Boyack, who was already on the skids, seemed to seal her own fate with two spectacular recent crashes. She failed to defend the use of the Scottish flag and the national letters "SCO" on car number-plates. Then it emerged that her department had failed to renew the order for tolls on the Erskine Bridge. Until it can be rushed through parliament, motorists will cross the Clyde toll-free at a government revenue loss of £13,000 a day.

Those in line for promotion include the deputy health minister, Malcolm Chisholm, the deputy justice minister, Iain Gray, and the Finance Minister, Angus MacKay. But McLeish is restricted by the scarcity of talent on the back benches and, as a result, surprises will include promotion for friends and allies of Jack McConnell, the Education Minister (and First Minister-in-waiting), who came within five votes of beating McLeish for the leadership last October.

And the "tartan tax" looms still. The convener of the Holyrood finance committee, Mike (Lord) Watson, said he believed the power to levy a 3p-in-the-pound tax would and should be used in the next term to raise £750m a year. Some may dismiss this as a silly-season story, but McLeish's generosity has to be paid for somehow. Before too long, it may seem deadly serious.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The love of a robot