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Wednesday, 30 September, 1998, 11:07 GMT 12:07 UK
Blair 'does a Maggie'
Tony Blair
Tony Blair: no turning back
By Nick Assinder in Blackpool

There's probably a time in every prime minister's life when he or she has to do the "there's no turning back" speech - and it seems to be about a year after election.

For Margaret Thatcher it came at the 1980 Tory party conference, the year after her 1979 general election victory.

In words that bore little relation to her later policy decisions, she told the party faithful "You turn if you want to - the lady's not for turning."

And, just over a year since Tony Blair became prime minister in an historic election landslide, he told his restless delegates on Tuesday: "There will be no backing down."

And he didn't just tell them once. In one way or another he must have told them a dozen times. And, of course, he will welcome all the analogies being made between his conference speech and Mrs Thatcher's.

Similarities and differences

Mrs Thatcher was a tough, uncompromising leader who took no nonsense from either the country or her own party. Mr Blair has modelled himself on her and is eager to be cast in exactly the same light.

But there are huge differences between the position Tony Blair finds himself in and the one the former Tory leader was facing.

She was looking increasingly isolated, both within her own party and in the country.

Britain was in the grip of a serious recession, half her cabinet hated the sight of her and she was disastrously low in the opinion polls.

The Cabinet
The Cabinet demonstrates loyalty
Tony Blair, on the other hand, still holds a commanding opinion poll lead over all comers, his cabinet is fanatically loyal and there is no full-scale recession - well not yet anyway.

But there are still similarities. These two speeches were about leaders trying to re-exert their authority.

Margaret Thatcher had a huge battle ahead while Tony Blair is only suffering flesh wounds from small arms fire, mostly from within his own ranks. But he has acted decisively to show who is in control.

He offered some new radicalism and warned against division, urging his dissidents to "work with us."

In a fighting speech, he tried to refocus his party's eyes on the future while reminding them of the advances already made.

It worked well enough, with most critics ready to accept his promises.

But the prime minister now has the real hard work to do by colouring in the announcements.

The devil is in the detail

Delegate after delegate said they were happy with the broad thrust of his speech, but wanted to see more detail.

Transport union boss Bill Morris said: "It was a very clear restatement of Labour's record in office and its aims and values.

"It positions Labour well for the series of challenges ahead on both social and economic issues.

"I was not expecting the prime minister to stand here today and announce a new change of policy, he was here today to reassure the party and the country that the government is on course.

"Of course there are challenges ahead. We live for challenges, they are there to be fought and overcome."

Thurrock MP Andrew Mackinlay said he welcomed the speech but said the real test would be in how the pledges were carried through.

He echoed the view of many critical backbench MPs who said they were deeply concerned that the "ominous" references to welfare reform might signal more setbacks like the cuts to single parent benefits.

And it is the filling in of the fine detail that will ultimately decide whether this speech was a pivotal one, or whether it was a hostage to fortune.


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