Politics - John Kampfner on the man who would be Gladstone

The man who would be Gladstone is unfurling all kinds of visionary reforms. The problem is that, for

Never one to understate his case, Tony Blair is now promising to "alter fundamentally the contract between citizen and state". The purpose of the Prime Minister's speech on 10 October was to persuade the doubters that he really does have a vision for his third and final term. To do that he also has to, as one friendly MP put it, "remove the clutter" - code for Iraq. Labour MPs are facing an increasingly hard task in persuading voters that Blair did not lie over the war. "First you have to get over that huge hurdle, and only then can you start to put the case for the domestic agenda," says one MP. "It's not easy."

That is why Michael Howard, for his reasons, and Charles Kennedy, for his more ethical reasons, have served notice that they will take every opportunity to challenge the Prime Minister's trustworthiness. Blair was visibly angry in the Commons on 12 October when invited to say sorry for misleading the country about intelligence. He continued his tactic of apology by increment, in the hope that the public will eventually tire of the issue.

Blair is succumbing more acutely than before to his affliction for perpetual rhetorical motion. When he does not make grandiloquent statements, he is accused of having no ideology. When he does, the ideology is found wanting. Frustrated by his inability to project himself as a 19th-century pioneer, he cannot resist the temptation to have yet another go at vision. His latest grand project is a series of "reform acts" to change our public services and welfare state. The man who would be Gladstone on the international stage now likens himself at home to a Grey or a Disraeli.

If only, as some advisers urge him, the government would allow its actions to speak for themselves. The record stands up to scrutiny: sound economic management (thanks mainly to his neighbour); improving hospitals and, in some areas, schools; a revived public appreciation of the need for taxation to pay for them; and a series of poverty alleviation measures, from tax credits to increases in pensions, tailored to those most in need. The stolidity of the ten points for action announced by Blair in his party conference speech appeared to presage a more deliberative approach.

So, strip down Blair's latest language and where does it lead? Shortly after his latest speech, I consulted a number of more cerebral Labour MPs and think-tank heads. None could provide an answer. Blair has still not made a detailed case for choice in public services. Is it an end in itself - to turn us into more responsible consumers - or is it a means to an end of better provision, applied case by case? Where is the evidence to show a correlation between improved performance and choice? Has the right to choose our GPs, which has existed for decades, improved the manner of the receptionist or the doctor?

On welfare, the thinking is even less developed. Such are the unpalatable truths that no move on pensions is expected before the next election. But then what? Some ultra-Blairites have taken to rubbishing the Treasury's means testing - an unhappy way of helping the poor, but perhaps the least worst - yet an alternative is yet to be found.

The other spending behemoth, incapacity benefit, is also under scrutiny, with a more restrictive approach beckoning. Work is being done in Downing Street on broadening the definition of the welfare state from the handing over of benefits to a more pervasive approach. This might include looking at issues such as public health and antisocial behaviour, and methods for matching benefits more closely with the way we lead our lives.

Over the summer, Blair's people put out an SOS for ideas. Several contributors suggested "social mobility" in their memos. This had received an airing in 2002 only to be dropped; now it has been revived. The phrase is not a million miles away from John Major. For the "opportunity society" of now, read "equality of opportunity" then. Major might have been as assiduous a privatiser as Margaret Thatcher, but Blair's emphasis on a society based on incentives for self-improvement, rather than equality of outcome, is more similar to his predecessor's than either would care to admit.

Gordon Brown's speech on 23 October at a conference organised by Compass, the increasingly influential left-of-Blair pressure group, will be seen through the lens of the power struggle. It should also be seen as an alternative view of what a third term would entail. Blair always had a clear picture of where he wants to take his party. In his speech, he again made a virtue of triangulation, asserting: "New Labour will, of course, remain under constant attack, [from] left and right".

Blairism remains what it always was - a piece of successful political positioning. It never was an ideology, and attempts to append one at this late stage do not invite the response that the PM is seeking.