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Blair changes his tune . . . too late?

Stephen Beard May 15, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: British Prime Minister Tony Blair has resorted to an old trick. Or maybe it’s a trick for old politicians. Blair’s political fortunes have waned the past couple of months. So today he went on the offensive. Announced a whole slew of get-tough-on-crime initiatives. But they might turn out to be too little, too late. Blair’s approval ratings have plummeted for a whole lot of reasons. One of them is the same issue that first got him elected nine years ago. From London, Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports.

[Sound: Music, “Hey, Big Spender”]

STEPHEN BEARD: Once, he was young, charismatic and full of energy. . . . When Blair arrived on the scene it was love at first sight for the British voter. . . . One of Blair’s main attractions, when he was first elected prime minister, was his promise to pump more money into Britain’s ailing public services.

GIDEON RACKMAN: There was widespread public dissatisfaction with the health and education services which are state-run here in Britain, and a feeling that more money needed to be spent to bring them up to the kind of standards that people expected.

But nine years on, the love affair is well and truly over. After $600 billion-worth of extra public spending, many British voters feel rather differently about Blair and his government, says Gideon Rackman of the Economist magazine.

RACKMAN: Before, they thought the problem was the services were underfunded. Now, I think they’re beginning to think: Well, we’ve poured all this money in but things aren’t working well, so maybe the money has been wasted.

The perception is growing that healthcare and education have not markedly improved. That much of the money has gone into larger pay packets and more generous pensions for government workers. Bureaucrats have proliferated, says Andrew Hilton of the CSFI think tank.

ANDREW HILTON: What we’ve got is lots and lots more managers. And lots and lots more better paid managers who have guaranteed pensions which most people in the UK don’t have.

Blair has many other problems, among them rising crime and, of course, Iraq. His popularity is plunging, He is under pressure to quit and hand over the top job to his Finance Chief and rival, Gordon Brown. He had promised he would, but now appears to be backtracking. Brown, however, wants to take control long before the next election. He is talking openly about Blair’s departure.

GORDON BROWN: Tony’s said that he’s going to do it in a stable and orderly way. That means he will be talking not just to me but to senior colleagues about it. You see . . . remember when Mrs Thatcher left, it was unstable, it was disorderly, it was undignified.

A clear shot across the bows. The Iron Lady left office in tears, 16 years ago, driven out by members of her own cabinet and party. Tony Blair looks vulnerable. The Big Spender — say his critics — not only wasted taxpayers’ cash, he’s frittered away his political capital as well.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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