Bold Prime Minister lives to fight another day

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MR BLAIR’S Bournemouth speech yesterday was billed as the political equivalent of Gary Cooper facing his enemies in High Noon: it would be a "do-or-die" speech and Mr Blair would be on his own. As it turned out, the tone was set by a long ovation even before he began his address to the Labour conference. Whether this was stage-managed, or whether the middle ground among delegates decided that a public humiliation of the Prime Minister would rebound on the party, is neither here nor there.

The unexpectedly warm reception allowed Mr Blair to ease into a speech which enabled him to live another day.

For once, Mr Blair aimed his words squarely at Labour members, rather than the general public. He was fighting for his political life, and he knew it. Mr Blair had three internal problems to deal with: Iraq and its messy aftermath, resistance to public sector modernisation, and the crisis of his allegedly autocratic style of leadership.

Tactical victory

On Iraq, Mr Blair was not for turning. He gave a low-key but unrepentant explanation of why he had gone to war and would do so again in similar circumstances. The security crisis of the 21st century was not the traditional threat posed by sovereign states, but the spread of weapons of mass destruction and their possible use by terrorist organisations. Faced with uncertain intelligence information, the only reasonable course of action a leader could take was to err on the side of caution and remove Saddam Hussein, with his proven track record of using such weapons on his own people. Mr Blair also rejected criticism that he was George Bush’s poodle, and posed the dilemma that isolating America would only encourage it to act unilaterally.

These were excellent points, and Mr Blair managed to put them over in such a conciliatory manner that there was none of the expected jeering or conference walk-outs.

However, this was a tactical victory that deflected opposition rather than converted hearts and minds. Had conference been allowed to debate the war, the outcome would have been very different. For the Labour Party (and the nation) are still deeply divided over the war, while Mr Blair’s carefully crafted sound-bite - "We who started the war should finish the peace" - ignored any answers regarding the construction of an exit strategy from Iraq. For a start, the Chancellor’s 3 billion Iraq contingency fund has already been used up, and Mr Brown is noticeably reticent about offering any more cash.

Blair the reformer

On modernisation of the public sector, Mr Blair was on firmer ground. He could point to a reasonably strong economy with lots of new jobs under Labour (though no mention of what will happen if interest rates go up). He could point to some genuine improvements in education standards in England, and he made much of the introduction of the national minimum wage.

His careful rhetoric steered clear of problems created since Labour’s arrival in 1997, not least the crisis in private sector pensions. Altogether, the delegates seemed appreciative of his repeated assertions that, under the Tories, these things would not have happened.

But none of this will ultimately deflect resistance to foundation hospitals in England, or university top-up fees among unions or back-benchers. Doubtless, Mr Blair may win the day on these points (especially as the Chancellor has watered down the hospital plans), because the internal opposition has no practical alternatives. A consumer-led public sector is still far from a reality after six and a half years of New Labour, although limited progress is being made in England. In the Scottish Executive, which regards most sensible Blairite reforms as "un-Scottish", advances are even slower in coming.

On the vexed question of leadership style, Mr Blair seemed to raise the subject - "the old top-down approach will not work anymore" - only to offer little in the way of change. In a real sense, why should he? He advocates strong leadership. Is the solution to Britain’s problems weak leadership? No.

Despite the self-deprecating jokes and the informal style, this really was a "take me as I am" speech. In a sense, this was not arrogance. Mr Blair sees himself as a conviction politician and a reformer - his speech was spiced with genuine personal frustration that change was taking so long. He is no consensual figure presiding over a cabinet of giants. The only giant in Mr Blair’s administration, apart from himself, is the brooding Chancellor at No11. To justify his continued leadership, Mr Blair offered delegates a fresh crusade - a third historic election victory.

But the proffered programme for this third Blair administration was sketchy in the extreme on detail. Putting flesh on these bare bones post-Bournemouth will be the real test of his convictions.

Powerful manifesto

There will shortly be a campaign of popular meetings, at which Mr Blair and his ministers will consult the electorate. The government will publish a document explaining its record, and Labour will use this as the basis for a discussion on its renewal of policy: why taxpayers should be forced to subsidise this party political activity is unclear. This will be "a progressive, imaginative, vibrant public debate about how we build a future fair for all". This artifice filled a gap in the speech labelled "what next on policy", but it hardly constitutes much of a programme of action between now and 2005.

Where Mr Blair’s lecture contained its weakest link was in regard to his repeated but contradictory use of the Tory shibboleth. On the one hand, he used the Tory electoral collapse as a lesson for not returning to the bad old days when Labour similarly talked only to itself. He referred to the famous occasion in 1985, at a previous Bournemouth Labour conference, when Neil Kinnock started the fightback against the Militant Tendency.

Mr Blair urged the delegates to remember how far they had come since those dark days and made fun of the fact that the Tories were now repeating the Labour mistakes of yesteryear.

On the other hand, Mr Blair also attempted to frighten delegates with the prospect of a Tory victory at the next election if Labour lost its nerve. That made good conference tub-thumping, but in the cold light of morning there can be few who think the Conservatives are in any shape to do Labour real electoral damage. Certainly, most delegates would take the point about no return to the days of left-wing lunacy. That is not the obvious option. The pretender to Mr Blair’s crown in the eye’s of the trades unions and party activists is Gordon Brown, not a latter-day Derek Hatton.

Mr Blair told the delegates at Bournemouth that he had no reverse gear. This was not the speech of a Prime Minister considering stepping aside for his Chancellor any time soon. It did not remove all the doubts about him which dominated the summer, far from it. But as the basis for his attempted renewal of a deeply troubled government, and a crushing of his rival’s ambitions, it was a powerful personal manifesto which trumped that of the Chancellor.