POLITICS

Published: 30/09/2004, Volume II4, No. 5925 Page 23

This column arrives late from Brighton seafront in part because your intrepid correspondent was harangued on his way into the Labour Party conference by a determined lobbyist for a body called Disabled Go.

The conference staged by the governing party of the day is lobbied by more and more organisations every year, with their message reinforced by more and more fringe meetings. HSJ's editor is chairing one highminded fringe in the Metropole Hotel as I type. This year there is even a 'health hotel' - the previously cheerfully unhealthy Old Ship - rented by health lobbies en masse.When I looked in at midnight they had sensibly gone to bed.

The young man from Disabled Go was in a wheelchair, from which he demanded more access - 'so they can participate more' - for Britain's 9.8 million disabled people (one in six), which includes 1 million in chairs, 4 million on sticks and 11 million hard of hearing.

He was charming and persistent, but when I hear this kind of statistical lava I bridle. Access has hugely improved in recent years, I suggested.

And there are not 10 million disabled people in Britain, whatever government statistics may say.

We parted on good terms after he made the mistake of saying: 'Name me 10 disabled people in public life'.Having spent 10 minutes with the great Blunkett 12 hours earlier, I snapped back: 'The Cabinet is 10 per cent disabled, ' since chancellor Gordon Brown has only one eye.

My new friend was genuinely surprised: it hadn't occurred to him like that. In fact, even I forgot that foreign secretary Jack Straw is deaf in one ear.

I mention all this to highlight what I am starting to remember about the inherent impossibility of sustaining a Labour government because it raises expectations - about access and everything else - so high that people are unrealistic and easily disappointed.

Back in Brighton in 1983 the Trots accused Neil Kinnock of betrayal on day one. Among normal people, anger develops more slowly, though I have a 63year-old left-wing woman friend who still believes that Cherie Blair ('a little common') had baby Leo as an election gimmick!

John Reid and Alan Milburn, successive Blairite health secretaries, are up to their necks in the battle to save Labour's governing project. That is not to say that Mr Brown, Mr Blair's own successor, is anything but equally serious about the same project. All three are men of power.Mr Reid's official agenda in Brighton has been to prepare the ground for the public health white paper.He and Mr Brown agree that healthier lifestyles can save billions for the NHS, as well as countless lives.

The Daily Mail detected a retreat on the white paper plan to let local councils decide whether to have a ban on smoking in public places. Echoing Mr Blair, who doesn't like cigarette smoke when eating, but does seek 'balance', Mr Reid told smokers he was trying to find a way to 'protect the majority against your smoke'while letting them have a drag - 'your right to smoke'.

Though not in the conference centre and not if you're a hunter demonstrating outside, it seems.

But I digress.When I caught up with Mr Reid doing a Granada TV interview, he was fighting off Paul Bigley's criticism (to my mind excessive) of ministerial efforts to rescue his brother Ken.

No, we did not negotiate with IRA terrorists. 'We fought fire with fire, ' until they announced a ceasefire, Mr Reid retorted.He was careful to sympathise with the Bigleys' plight. But It is always impressive when politicians, dependent on votes, are willing to take on popular champions.

That is what sorts out the men from the boys. In the BrownBlair struggle, where both sides feel so let down and briefed against by the other, there is the adolescent quality of two teenagers fighting to be the biggest kid in the gang.

Here in Brighton I am beginning to think - for the first time - that Blair is dying politically, destroyed inch by inch by mistrust over Iraq, which has spread to schools and NHS wards.My hunch is that Reid and Milburn, two old lefties who have moved to the centre ground, believe that Old Labourists, old trade union bosses, assorted Marxists and London media groupies have been waiting for this moment - but will be beaten back.Maybe, maybe not.