LAST WEDNESDAY Tony Blair jetted in on a brief visit to England. While quite at home in the company of dictators, warlords and George W Bush, Blair soon felt in need of protection from his own backbenchers. One minute you can be a great international statesman, a war leader in almost freakish control of your party.
The next, ungrateful members of parliament can take a nip at the hands that have fed them. After months of growing disgruntlement, the Parliamentary Labour Party burst into open revolt last week.
Once upon a time Frank Dobson was New Labour's great right hope to defeat Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral elections. On Wednesday of last week this mild mannered Blairite was reincarnated as the scourge of the very New Labour health secretary, Alan Milburn. Milburn announced plans to hand NHS hospitals over to private companies. With so many examples of free market disasters fresh in their minds, it was the final straw for many Labour MPs.
'Reluctantly' Dobson asked Milburn to 'guarantee that absolutely none of those outside managers come from such private sector disasters as Railtrack, Equitable Life, Marconi, or the accountants, auditors or management consultants associated with those private sector disasters?' Mr Milburn could not.
Another Labour MP, David Taylor, suggested that Alan Milburn's announcement will 'stick in the throats of many on this side of the House like an unchewed pretzel'. On the same day 26 Labour MPs rebelled against government plans to abolish health councils. Although the government won the vote easily, the revolt symbolised the depth of resentment building in Labour's ranks. The opposition extends far beyond the usual left wing suspects.
Among those voting against the government on this occasion were ex-ministers Frank Field, Kate Hoey and Geoffrey Robinson. Wednesday's debate, however, proved to be just a rehearsal for the Parliamentary Labour Party's next performance.
'Barmy' army on the ropes
AT AN acrimonious meeting of the members of the Parliamentary Labour Party last week, MPs queued up to have a pop at Blair. Not one MP could be persuaded to defend government policies on the NHS. Blair must have felt desperate when he told MPs that 'there is no alternative' to his policies.
He told them that they had to continue with reforms (a phrase which used to mean improving things and now means making them worse). An 'intense 40 minutes' of 'robust' discussion left many MPs unconvinced. One MP told Blair there was 'no public support for transferring services to the private sector'.
Alan Simpson MP was more to the point, describing plans to extend privatisation as 'barmy'. Phrases such as 'selling out' were also bandied about. Another warned Blair, 'If you are going to upset the Parliamentary Labour Party these days, they are going to let you know about it. People are more confident now of raising their heads above the parapet.' Normally loyal MPs, such as Julia Drown, Helen Jackson, Peter Pike, David Clelland and Geraint Davies fired questions at Blair.
If the Millbank spinners thought the presence of TV cameras and opposition MPs would quell the tide of criticism, they soon had to think again. Not since he was slow-handclapped by the Women's Institute was Blair as visibly shaken as he was at Prime Minister's Question Time on Thursday of last week. The opportunities for career-advancing sycophancy were cast aside in favour of old fashioned criticism.
John Cryer MP went for the Blair jugular. 'Could you tell the house how these whizz-kids from the private sector will supposedly transform the health service?' he asked to loud cheers. Mr Blair could not.
'Labour MPs are much more fractious than during our first term'
SENIOR CABINET OFFICER
'The backbenchers have swollen with the sacked and the damned who have begun to realise they will never be ministers'
JOURNALIST ANDREW RAWNSLEY
Blairites draw blood
IT WAS not just the NHS that got Labour MPs hot under the collar. On the question of the war in Afghanistan Blair was again discomfited. Blair was forced to defend the treatment of the Al Qaida prisoners on the US military base on Cuba. Their treatment is even stirring up anger among some MPs who were pro-war.
Veteran anti-war campaigner Tam Dalyell spoke for many in and outside parliament when he demanded, 'What exactly is the justification for continued bombing?' Some MPs broke ranks over Labour's plans to elect only 20 percent of the House of Lords. Others drew blood over Blair's failure to fulfil commitments to ban hunting.
The press coverage of the debates said Blair was 'mauled' and 'on the ropes'. With resistance to New Labour's project growing, he may have to get used to it. Some of the new rebels were elected as New Labour MPs. They have been loyal to Blair and his project, on message and onside. They know there is deepening anger against the government in their constituencies.
Just saying 'the Tories might come back' is no longer enough to keep everyone quiet. The most modern of modernisers cannot paper over the parliamentary cracks forever. If the mood is hotting up in parliament, imagine the temperature on the streets.