After the war is over, will they boot Blair out?

Parliament's back. So what? It does not, on the face of it, matter a jot. Whatever MPs say, Tony Blair is zooming around the globe doing his own thing, more presidential than President Bush himself, and the public seem to like it. "Bloody hell," moaned one Labour leftie as the Commons returned, "it's taken us four years to get Blair's poll ratings out of the stratosphere, and now they're right back up there again - only more so." He went on to predict that any hopes MPs had of reasserting themselves in this parliament now lie in the ashes of Ground Zero. Parliamentary reform? A return to anything vaguely resembling cabinet government? Forget it.

Up until 11 September, the lefties, the parliamentarians, the doubters, all had their tails up. At last, it seemed, Blair's iron grip on the party was loosening. The backbenchers were biting back, first by chucking the government's attempts to fix the select committees right back in its face, then by setting up the group, Parliament First, which aims to restore some of parliament's powers.

And, in response, there were signs of emollience from No 10, with MPs being encouraged to feed their views into the Prime Minister's refashioned political office.

MPs were being urged to "just pop in" to the Prime Minister's Commons office, which now has its door firmly wedged open between 11am and 6pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. They won't find Tony Blair himself wondering whether they'd like Nescafe or Earl Grey . . . but at least somebody's trying.

Now, the reformers fear, all that is history. After all, the Prime Minister moves in higher circles these days. Why would a man who breakfasts with President Musharraf, lunches with Yasser Arafat and dines with President Putin want to listen to the views of the honourable member for Grimsby or Walsall North? Why should he even worry about the two former junior ministers, Doug Henderson and Peter Kilfoyle, who are seriously questioning the Afghan policy?

Why indeed, for although Blair doesn't want to be actively disliked or plotted against, he has never bothered overmuch about the "view in the tearoom" that had such a mysterious hold over Margaret Thatcher. Yet MPs still have a claim to influence on behalf of a more important group than themselves - the voters out there.

What does worry No 10, and rightly, is ingratitude. Already people around Westminster are muttering about the Winston Churchill syndrome; the great war leader returns from the lofty heights of international affairs to receive the thanks of a grateful nation . . . and is promptly booted out of power.

This "war" is unlikely to have such a clear or decisive end - in fact, thinking of Hiroshima, and the views of some American State Department hawks, let's hope not. Nor is Britain in the shattered state of 1945. But once again, there is a huge amount of domestic work to be done, and voters will make their crosses next time on the basis of schools and trains, not the exploits of the SAS up the Khyber Pass.

Tony Blair's speech to public-sector workers in London was notable mostly because he made it. Even in the middle of everything else, he wants to keep some attention on the domestic reform agenda. He is visiting "delivery departments" one by one. He has had spending ministers in and gone through their plans in some detail. He hints strongly that if it comes to a choice between raising taxes and not being able to deliver better services, then he is a reluctant tax-raiser. He has no illusions about the grateful nation business.

But the real question that was being asked so bluntly just before 11 September, and is still pertinent now, is whether the Blair reform agenda is in any way a Labour agenda.

One very interesting moment came when Stephen Byers, the Transport Secretary, made his long-awaited statement on why he didn't bail out Railtrack. Byers is not, it is safe to say, one of the more popular ministers on the Labour benches. They regard him as a hyper-loyal Blairite and now as the enthusiastic boss of Jo Moore, the spin-doctor whose ghastly e-mail immediately after the New York attack about "burying" bad news seemed to sum up everything that is wrong and heartless about new Labour. So everyone had expected Byers to have a very torrid afternoon - so much so that the business managers had tried to "bury" his statement by putting it after two others on the war against terrorism on the home front from David Blunkett and Gordon Brown.

In fact, Byers came through almost unscathed. Yes, that was partly because the new Tory transport frontbencher Eric Pickles blew it badly. But it was also because Byers decided to adopt a traditionalist Labour pose. He was there to support the railways, he kept saying, not to support private companies. He wasn't going to take £1.5bn of taxpayers' money and hand it straight over to shareholders. And whose wretched privatisation had it been in the first place anyway? By the end, mainstream Labour MPs were leaving the Chamber muttering, only slightly in jest, about "Comrade Byers".

There is a message here for No 10. The minute the party thinks the government is really going to push reform in a pro-public service way, more people will rally and help do the basic political spade-work Labour needs in the country. There's a further twist that the Tories have noticed. After Railtrack, it is going to be more expensive and harder to raise large sums in the City for Blair's prized public-private partnerships. In all sorts of areas, there may be no alternative to traditional public- sector investment.

And to be cynical about it, the "war" gives perfect cover for any modest tax rises there may need to be. What's more, Blair's own absolute demand for "delivery" means that his mind cannot be closed . . . even to the views of the unions.

When the going gets tough - and it looks as though it's going to, on both the home and the war fronts - Tony Blair will need that army of politicians with him to win a real argument in marginal seats among the growing army of non-voters.

So maybe, after all, the "war" has not finished the MPs' brief chance to democratise and open up parliament. Despite the fear that all the convenient and grand trappings of a "war leader" will close around Blair; that he'll become more autocratic, not less; more suspicious of parliament and the Labour movement, there is something else pulling him the other way. In the end, Tony Blair is a parliamentary politician, not a general or president . . . and the watching, waiting public know it.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A plan for the world