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banner Sunday, 23 September, 2001, 00:22 GMT 01:22 UK
Shadow over party conferences
Andrew Marr

The 2001 party conference season will be unlike any in living memory.

As I write this, the message from the main parties is that it will go ahead as usual, but Westminster has been buffeted by rumours of emergency plans for cancellation if British troops are involved in a bloody conflict.

Tony Blair:
Tony Blair: Fleeting visit only expected
Certainly, the conferences in Brighton, Bournemouth and Blackpool will be overshadowed by the grave issues for world security following the World Trade Centre attacks.

Speaking to the BBC, the new Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said he thought the tone and atmosphere would be very different from normal - criticism of the government would continue but in a more subdued way.

Though the prime minister expects to attend Labour's conference, no-one will be surprised if it is a fleeting visit.

Focus for early protest?

Each conference will be affected differently. The Liberal Democrats will be fighting for news coverage, particularly if turns out that their week in Bournemouth coincides with the first US response to the outrage.

But with their tradition of Liberal radicalism and with some pacifist elements in the party, it will be interesting to see whether this conference becomes a focus for early protests about Tony Blair's support for President George W Bush.

In ordinary circumstances, we would have been watching the extent to which the Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy was cheekily challenging the Tories for the mantle of "real opposition" to Labour; and observing his response to Mr Duncan Smith's decision to target the Liberal Democrats with a special unit at Tory headquarters.

And indeed, over time, the knife-fight in large areas of England between these two parties - one staunchly pro-European, the other now firmly Eurosceptic - will be fascinating.

This year, though, how Mr Kennedy deals with the foreign policy and civil liberties implications of the anti-terrorist "crusade" will be the bigger question.

Paddy Ashdown, the former leader, has strong views both on terrorism and on the problems facing the Islamic world; it would be odd if we didn't hear from him too.

All eyes on Labour's dissidents

Similarly, the big issue of the Labour conference at Brighton was going to be the scale of the union revolt over public-private partnerships in state education and the NHS.

No longer, I guess. Instead we will be watching every word uttered by possible terror crusade dissidents, from Clare Short inside the government, to George Galloway rather a long way outside it; and how they go down on the floor of the conference.

Charles Kennedy:
Charles Kennedy: Hoping for news coverage
In some respects, Mr Blair will have an easier time with his speech. He has a great issue before him, and knows exactly what he thinks about it. He will be spared some of the carping on lesser matters he would otherwise have faced.

His persuasive powers will be at their greatest. But like the rest of the political world, he will be wondering a little nervously how "New Labour" takes to this full-hearted American alliance.

Among those watching, none will be observing the hall with greater interest than Mr Duncan Smith. He has pressed his support on Mr Blair over the US disaster so closely that not a glimmer of daylight can be seen, nor a whisper of controversy heard.

Tories ready to seize on Labour 'flakiness'

So far: the new Tory leader is a true-blue, unequivocal pro-American with a military background. If Labour activists seem to waver in their support for President Bush, he will make much of their left-wing "flakiness" in Blackpool.

He may need to. Mr Duncan won the leadership poll by a very impressive 61-39% margin and would, in normal circumstances, have expected a happy, controversy-free honeymoon conference.

Iain Duncan Smith
Iain Duncan Smith: True blue pro-American
But his choice of shadow cabinet appointments was sufficiently Eurosceptical and right-wing to bitterly disappoint supporters of the defeated candidates.

The Tories are still in a battered condition and an abnormally rancorous gathering had been on the cards.

I would be surprised if that happens now. Internal dissent suddenly feels rather petty compared to the enormity of the World Trade Centre and Pentagon attacks; Mr Duncan Smith speaks well on security issues and the Tories will want to rally round him for the time being.

All in all, then, a most unusual conference season looms. It will be quieter, graver and less mischievous than usual.

As with the Ryder Cup and the Last Night of the Proms, normal service, we hope, will be resumed next year.

See also:

21 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Clarke stays away from Tory conference
20 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Lib-Lab committee disbanded
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