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banner Tuesday, 26 September, 2000, 17:49 GMT 18:49 UK
Blair delivers the speech of his career
Prime Minister Tony Blair at Labour conference
Blair maps out his personal vision
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

No one doubted that Tony Blair's conference speech was the most important of his career.

Three years after his sensational election victory he has gone from being the most popular prime minister in living memory to a man fighting for his political future.

It went down a storm and was immediately being described as the best speech he had ever made

He needed to pull off something pretty special to turn the tide of disillusion - even despair - within Labour ranks, and to start rebuilding his credibility with the voters.

This was, without any doubt, the big one. And the immediate, if unsurprising, verdict from conference delegates after his speech - which saw him sweating profusely in the stiflingly hot hall - was that he had pulled it off in some style.

The last Labour prime minister, Lord Jim Callaghan, even went so far as to claim it was the best speech he had heard in 60 years attending conference.

It may not have deserved that accolade, but Mr Blair clearly delivered what his conference wanted to hear.

Former prime minister Lord Callaghan
Callaghan: best speech in 60 years
He answered allegations that he is arrogant and out of touch, declaring he was listening to people's concerns.

He admitted to having made mistakes and to have suffered a "knock" over recent weeks.

And he even expressed regret at decisions on issues like the Dome and pensions.

Made people angry

In a key section of the speech which veered towards contrition, he said: "I am the prime minister that's supposed to be the great reader of public opinion.

How his performance will play with the wider public and how long the new-found confidence will last remains to be seen

"After the events of two weeks ago it's no wonder the government has taken a knock - it happened on my watch and I take responsibility.

"Yes there are things we have done that have made people angry and we should be open enough to admit it," he said.

And, in a clear sign of concessions to come on pensions, he declared: "we get the message."

He was less clear about what, if anything, he would do to tackle the crisis over fuel prices, suggesting he might be happy to tough it out and make it a choice between tax cuts and spending.

Most people, however, still believe there will be some concessions in the government's pre-budget statement in the autumn.

He also delivered a passionate account of what drives him, talking of an irreducible core of beliefs on which he would never compromise.

There has been the constant suspicion amongst voters - particularly traditional Labour supporters - that Mr Blair had no real beliefs or ideology.

His speech sought to directly answer that criticism and paint himself as a true conviction politician.

Man with a mission

And, in a calculated gamble, he declared, if people did not share his these core values and beliefs, then they should: "vote for the other man."

He described himself as a man with a mission and he tore into William Hague as an opportunist.

He spent much of his speech attacking the Tories' 18-year record and warning that they were still a threat.

He mapped out Labour's achievements and insisted a second Labour term would bring major advances.

But, until he moved into the highly-personal section of the speech, there were fears he was not rising to the occasion and even that the oppressive atmosphere in the conference centre was taking a toll.

Attacks on the past Tory record start to wear thin after three years of Labour government.

And the suggestion that, no matter how bad his government may appear to be, William Hague's would be worse, are risky in the extreme. But then came the surprise.

Decent Tories

In a carefully crafted section of the speech which was deliberately not included in printed versions handed out at the opening of his address, he attempted to give people a handle on him.

He claimed he was a unifier who was motivated not by ideology but "solidarity" - a surprisingly Old Labour word.

He even took a leaf out of Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy's conference speech by appealing to the "decent one-nation Tories" to back his mission.

It went down a storm and was immediately being described as the best speech he had ever made.

He left the platform confident that he had succeeded in his first task of lifting Labour's spirits, answering the doubts about his leadership and pointing the way forward to the election.

How his performance will play with the wider public and how long the new-found confidence will last remains to be seen.

But most delegates in Brighton believe Mr Blair did everything he possibly could to drag the government back on track and start the fightback that will lead to the next general election.

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See also:

26 Sep 00 | Labour
Blair pledges to make amends
24 Sep 00 | Labour
Blair comes out fighting
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