Mixed reception likely for Blair

THERE shouldn't be a dry eye in Manchester's GMEX centre next week when Tony Blair delivers his final speech to a Labour Party conference.But I suspect there will be many.

By Graham Dines

THERE shouldn't be a dry eye in Manchester's GMEX centre next week when Tony Blair delivers his final speech to a Labour Party conference.

But I suspect there will be many. Because while most delegates will be celebrating the Blair era, there's likely to be several hundred who politely join the applause but are mighty pleased that the man, who will be forever remembered for involving Britain in the Iraq war and for reforming public services, is about to leave the scene.

The majority, particularly from the constituencies, will be showing their gratitude to Mr Blair, who grabbed a moribund Labour Party, reshaped it into New Labour, and won three general elections on the trot.

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He took no prisoners. Aided and abetted by Peter Mandelson and spun by the ruthless Alastair Campbell, he almost sent a gravely sick Conservative Party to its death.

He had a ruthless grip on the country which withstood the incompetence of the food-and-mouth epidemic and numerous allegations of sleaze and cronyism. The veneer may have started to slip when he joined George W. Bush's Iraq adventure, but even that wasn't enough to stop him winning last year's election.

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Now a growing chunk of his party wants him gone as soon as possible. Just as Margaret Thatcher was left to rue, there's no gratitude in politics. The Prime Minister wants to hang on until May, but pressure may force him out much earlier.

The wholesale reorganisation of public services has put him into a head-on collision with the unions and a growing number of backbench MPs. The public has been left bewildered by what is happening to a health service which has benefited from massive cash injections but is reeling from unprecedented levels of debt.

Former TGWU boss Lord (Bill) Morris, one of Labour's most respected and influential figures, this week warned Mr Blair that delaying his departure until after next May's mid term elections would be harmful to the party and the Government.

“There comes a time when you have to recognise that the institution - whether party, country or government - is bigger than the individual,” said Lord Morris. “No individual can be bigger than the Labour Party, however big you are as a member”

Ipswich MP Chris Mole, whose joint “Dear Tony” letter to the Prime Minister two weeks ago triggered the current leadership crisis and forced Mr Blair to indicate he would be gone within a year, said: “Now that the Prime Minister has given an indication of when he's going, there is plenty of scope for this conference to be an opportunity for Labour to celebrate the achievement of the past 10 years and for a majority of delegates and constituency parties to be confident to start planning for the future.”

As the Prime Minister arrives at Manchester's famous Midland Hotel, he'll be greeted by up to 100,000 anti-war demonstrators who will be marching on the next door GMEX centre to protest at Britain's continuing involvement in Iraq.

But defiant to the end, Mr Blair will surround himself with loyalists, such as the disgraced former United States president Bill Clinton.

Monday will be the major opportunity for Gordon Brown to sew up the succession. The Chancellor will give a barnstorming speech on Monday as at long last he sees on the horizon his chance to become Labour leader and Prime Minister.

Ipswich's Chris Mole said: “Gordon will no longer be under the conference shadow of Tony Blair and delegates will be able to give close scrutiny to how he sees the future direction of the party and the government.”

Of course, other ambitious men want the job. But if Mr Brown gives the speech of his life next week, he may be unassailable and the only meaningful battle will be the race to succeed John Prescott, when he steps down as Labour's deputy leader at the same time as Mr Blair.

SECURITY arrangements for the Labour and Conservative conferences have had to be changed after a laptop containing policing plans was stolen from a car. Thieves stole a laptop from a car being driven by a member of the armed forces parked at a motorway service station on the M3 in Hampshire on Tuesday morning.

The Ministry of Defence said security arrangements had been “fully reviewed” as a result of the theft and Greater Manchester Police said plans for policing the conference, which starts on Sunday, had been changed to ensure security was not compromised.

“We are fully aware of what information was contained on the laptop. We have taken action to ensure that security at the conference has not been compromised,” said a force spokesman.

Meanwhile, a strapping row is threatening to break out among delegates at next week's Labour Party conference over sponsorship of the lanyards everyone will have to wear to hold their pass. The white-coloured official ribbons have been sponsored this year by Sky News and bear the name of the Rupert Murdoch-owned organisation.

But leading trade union GMB has produced a rival lanyard which it believes will be more popular among the thousands of delegates, media and visitors to the conference, which opens in Manchester on Sunday. The union will offer to exchange the official lanyard for its red-coloured straps, which highlight the union's campaign against the AA over jobs and claims that disabled workers have been targeted for redundancy.

National officer Paul Maloney said: “After Wapping, a lot of trades unionists would metaphorically strangle Murdoch with his lanyards.”

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