Blair doesn't look back in anger

THERE was no long goodbye. A speech to remind his party what it would miss when he finally leaves, but no recriminations.He didn't look like a leader being forced out of office.

By Graham Dines

THERE was no long goodbye. A speech to remind his party what it would miss when he finally leaves, but no recriminations.

He didn't look like a leader being forced out of office. He held his head high. If there was bitterness, he didn't let it show.

Tony Blair made light of it. “You can't go on forever. That's why it is right that this is my last conference as leader.

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“Of course it is hard to let go. But it is also right to let go. For the country, and for you, the party.”

Deep down, he knew that the manner of his passing was his own fault. It was his own decision to make it publicly known he didn't intend to fight the next election which led to unrest.

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There was a not unnatural desire among sections of the party for a new leader to come in and take the Conservatives apart and marginalise the Liberal Democrats and the nationalist parties before fighting a general election.

Standing before thousands of delegates, he knew that many - perhaps a majority - of the ordinary, rank-and-file Labour Party members who day in and day out slog their guts out for the cause, did not want him to leave.

But there are others, from MPs to union bosses, who believe that Labour can't renew itself until he leaves the scene.

This conference, and the months leading up to it, have been overshadowed by turmoil in the party over Iraq, a new nuclear weapons system to replace Trident, a new generation of nuclear power stations, identity cards, and civil liberties.

Above all, there have been the feuds with Gordon Brown and the constant sniping, briefings and counter briefings by the outriders of the two men.

And when it came to praising Gordon Brown, he did it in a manner which hardly exuded good grace.

“I know New Labour would never have happened, and three election victories would never have been secured without Gordon,” the Prime Minister said.

“He is a remarkable man. A remarkable servant to this country. And that is the truth.”

There was loud conference applause, but there was no smile on the lips of Tony Blair.

Here was hardly a ringing endorsement for the Chancellor in the battle to succeed him as leader.

Indeed, there were two references which have been interpreted as being total put downs for man who was once was his closest friend in politics but who has been left brooding and fuming for years waiting to inherit what he believes to be his natural right.

First a joke, Referring to Cherie Blair's alleged remarks on Monday that Mr Brown's conference speech praising his relationship with the Prime Minister was “all lies,” Mr Blair departed from his script to joke: “At least I don't have to worry about her running off with the bloke next door.”

But what was scripted was a reference to Labour activists in his Sedgefield constituency who had taught him that he had to be “a fully paid up member of the human race before being a fully paid up member of the Labour Party.”

The sideswipe may have been lost on the delegates, but not to the rows media seated on the right of the platform and neither, I suspect, on the Chancellor.

Yesterday was not about the succession but to remind his party of the achievements of the past 10 years and to lay before them the targets ahead for the years to come.

It was also self-deprecating. “I know I look a lot older. That's what being leader of the Labour Party does for you.”

Mr Blair said he wanted his legacy to be a fourth term Labour government. But if the party started talking to itself as it had in the 1980s and treated the British public with contempt, that wouldn't happen.

The Tories, waiting in the wings, would be back.

He entreated the delegates to keep on winning. “Do it with optimism, with hope in your hearts.

“Politics is not a chore. It's the great adventure of progress.

“I don't want to be the Labour leader who won three elections.

“I want to be the first Labour leader to win three successive elections.

“So, it's up to you.”

And he concluded: “You can take my advice or you don't take it. Your choice.

“You've given me all I have ever achieved, and all that we've achieved, together, for the country.

“Next year, I won't be making this speech.

“But, in the years to come, wherever I am, whatever I do, I'm with. Wishing you well. Wanting you to win.

“You're the future now. Make the most of it.”

And that perhaps is the biggest hint that his time in office may be sooner over than next May, his predicted departure date.

How can he possibly appear and make another farewell speech at his party's spring conference?

Labour allowed Tony Blair what the Tories denied Margaret Thatcher - a farewell conference appearance.

The Conservatives sacked Mrs Thatcher after the 1990 conference. It was probably the cruellest act of betrayal they could have inflicted - denying her adoring party members the opportunity to say farewell and thank them for their support during her 10½ years in Downing Street.

Mr Blair said goodbye to his party in style. But he didn't hang around to milk the applause. Andembrace from Cherie and he walked away. The applause lasted for seven minutes 15 seconds but he remained for half that time before walking across the concourse to his hotel suite.

The speech was a master class for whoever follows him. Witty and charming, serious and purposeful, passionate and reflective.

He was throwing down a challenge to his successor - whoever follows has a big task ahead if he or she is to connect with the Labour Party as Tony Blair did.

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