Tony Blair and David Cameron were engaged in a battle to portray themselves as the champions of public sector workers last night.
The speeches, with both party leaders tackling similar topics on the same day, saw Labour and the Conservatives swopping their traditional roles.
The Conservative leader, stressed the importance of preserving the public service ideal of "working for the good of the community".
The Prime Minister focused on market-oriented reforms - which were once associated with the Tories.
Both men also insisted it was wrong to shift the blame onto public sector workers when things went wrong.
Mr Cameron explicitly criticised John Reid, the Home Secretary, who recently appeared to attack his staff when he said the Home Office was "not fit for purpose".
In a speech to the National Consumer Council in London, he went much further than the Prime Minister in insisting there were some things only the public sector could do.
He rejected Labour's focus on introducing market values into health and education, and encouraging business leaders to help run schools and hospitals.
The Government's health reforms will encourage hospitals to compete for patients, with those who attract the most receiving more funding.
Labour's education reforms include the introduction of trust schools, which can be governed by business leaders.
Mr Cameron said: "There's a widespread assumption that we should always and everywhere encourage the public sector to adopt the techniques and the style of service found in the private sector.
"Of course we want the public sector to adopt best practice in terms of costsavings, modern management and successful, cutting-edge business models. But that's not the whole story.
"The quality of service that someone gets doesn't depend primarily on whether that service is being provided by the private sector or the public sector. It depends on a whole range of things that affect the people who are actually delivering the service."
The Tory leader was the author of last year's Conservative General Election manifesto, which promised to freeze civil service recruitment and slash 235,000 public sector posts. But yesterday he admitted he may have gone too far.
"We have sometimes risked giving the impression that we see those who work in the public sector as burdens on the state rather than dedicated professionals who work hard to improve the quality of people's lives," he said.
The Prime Minister stressed the need for continued reform. It was essential public services learned from the private and voluntary sectors, he said.
"The danger is we use the obvious truth that the purpose and ethos of public services are not the same as business, to ignore the fact that, in many respects, they do indeed operate like businesses."