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Events in the Us made Tony Blair's decision to cancel his speech to the TUC in Brighton understandable. ...
Events in the Us made Tony Blair's decision to cancel his speech to the TUC in Brighton understandable.

His attention, like that of almost everybody else in the Western World, will be focused for at least the next few weeks on events in America and their aftermath.

But the debate scheduled for Brighton this week has been postponed - not cancelled.

That debate is about the very spirit of public service, the special nature of which was poignantly underlined in New York this week. Public servants - perhaps 300 firefighters and dozens of police officers - were killed when the collapse of the World Trade Center brutally ended their efforts to rescue those injured in the initial explosions.

Had Mr Blair made his Brighton speech as scheduled and delegates debated motions on private sector involvement in the public sector 24 hours later, there would have been bitter scenes. But this partly comes down to an almost ethereal debate about the meaning of words such as partnership.

Under this government, the joke 'Trust me, I'm a spin doctor' has taken on an uncomfortable reality for many on the left, those who work in the public services and the trade unions. In an interview published on the day he went to Brighton, Mr Blair effectively invited us to trust him.

But words such as trust have come to mean what the speaker wants them to mean in the debased language of the spin doctor. Ministers, many of whom seem to grow more unctuous with each passing month, smile reassuringly as they declare PPP is the only option for the London Underground. The same qualities were on display when trade secretary Patricia Hewitt played John the Baptist in Brighton to Mr Blair's Messiah.

Just days before the June election, health secretary Alan Milburn told our sister publication Nursing Times that 'no nurses or doctors will be transferred' to the private sector.

Weeks after the election, clinicians at an NHS cottage hospital were being offered the choice of resigning and accepting new contracts with a private company or losing their jobs. Would those clinicians accept Mr Blair's plea for trust?

A joke doing the rounds in union circles offers a more cynical view of partnerships - they are contracts which have not yet gone wrong.

Repeatedly, Labour ministers insist they will only press ahead with individual PPPs if it is proven they will provide better value for money than conventional public financing routes.

But what happened when the question of value for money was raised in the biggest PPP of them all? The government connives with the Underground's management in legal action to suppress a critical report by respected and independent consultants.

Partnerships are relationships which are agreed, not imposed. In this grimmest of weeks, let us remember that the idea of public service is far too important to just play with words.

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