ONE of the best informed columnists in the British press wrote recently that the adrenalin Tony Blair is generating as a war-leader is also re-charging his determination to reform the public services, education and health in particular. He is determined to see top-performing hospitals set free from the administrative shackles of the National Health Service despite Gordon Brown's strong reservations and he wants Britain's universities to perform better and become more acccessible to students from less-privileged backgrounds. The Chancellor has no reservations on improving access to Oxford and Cambridge for state school pupils - indeed he started this particular ball rolling a few years ago. But it is not clear whether Charles Clarke, the relatively new Education Secretary, is as keen as Mr Brown. In a most embarrassing incident on Monday, Margaret Hodge, the higher education minister, first announced a target for 2010 for the admission of students from working-class families to universities and then, a few hours later and under pressure from Mr Clarke, issued a corrective statement that such a target “would be inappropriate and we have no plans to introduce one.” Mrs Hodge is a dedicated and competent minister with long experience in education and this uturn will dismay her supporters. It is also a worrying indication of how the Whitehall machine is faltering as its central direction from Downing Street is increasingly dedicated to the war against Iraq. The Prime Minister has no effective deputy in such circumstances and this lacuna is likely to prove increasingly dangerous.


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