On the day that parliament debated the war with Iraq it was clear
by early evening that the government had sufficient votes to win a
majority within its own ranks as well as a large majority of the
House of Commons.
Loyal backbenchers, whips and ministers all looked relieved that a
moment of great danger for the government was passing off
successfully. In the tearooms, bars and corridors, talk moved on to
focus on the post-war reconstruction. All agreed that it was
critical for the Prime Minister to agree a peace settlement – with
the Labour Party. When politics as normal resumes there are a large
number of flashpoints on domestic issues – the most often mentioned
is foundation hospitals – and many backbenchers are already
indicating that they will not be as loyal over the future of the
NHS as they have been over foreign policy.
Will this be a serious challenge for Blair? Almost certainly.
First, we know that the habit of rebellion once learned is rarely
lost – 99 of the rebels over Iraq had already voted against the
government on one or more issues. So the hard core of rebels is now
larger than ever. Second, MPs are going through re-selection at the
moment so they have plenty of incentives to listen to their local
parties. Those who supported the Prime Minister over the war
because of loyalty may feel the need to do something to please
their activists. Picking a fight over foundation hospitals, which
can be portrayed as “defending” the NHS looks like a good cause to
many parliamentarians nervous about their futures. Finally, reform
of the public services has become a fundamental dividing line in
Labour politics. Blair believes rightly that health and education
in Britain have been dominated by producers for too long and
urgently need to become consumer-facing. His argument is that only
the most profound of transformations will save the NHS as we know
it. Unfortunately, to many backbenchers that position is
reminiscent of the US general in Vietnam who quipped that to save a
village he had to destroy it.
Figures in the government, such as Peter Hain, are already calling
for “reconnection” between the Labour government and the Labour
Party. But a victorious Blair is likely to be even bolder, rather
than more conciliatory, on the domestic stage. The Prime Minister
remains convinced that choice for consumers and plurality of
provision are the key to saving public services from terminal
decline. This is not an argument that turns on the practicality of
foundation hospitals – not themselves one of Labour’s best ideas –
but actually on conflicting visions of the future of Britain. It is
safe to make one prediction: when the shooting stops the war will
not be over.
John McTernan is a political analyst.