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Tuesday, 10 September, 2002, 17:23 GMT 18:23 UK
Blair's cool reception
Tony Blair at last year's TUC conference
Blair faced a doubting audience

If there's one thing Tony Blair can never be accused of it's not knowing which strings to pull.

And he was in prime pulling mode in his speech to restless union natives in Blackpool.

This time, however, during what all agreed was his most difficult TUC speech ever, the strings very nearly snapped.

Determined to get through his brief, 36-minute ordeal in one piece, he reminded delegates of the great advances made under New Labour - namely the minimum wage, job creation, statutory union recognition and investment in public services.

TUC General Secretary John Monks
Praise for Monks
He praised trades unions for their record of radicalism across the globe.

He reminded them of the horrors of 18 years of Tory misrule.

A Mo moment

And he heaped praise on the hard-pressed staff in the public services which, he insisted, were finally showing concrete signs of improvement.

These are not insubstantial advances - but most people here had dreamed of much more in 1997 and there is a genuine feeling amongst many, possibly even the majority, of disappointment spiced with frustration.

He even risked a "Mo moment" by inviting applause for the retiring TUC general secretary John Monks.

And Mr Monks' reception did indeed come very close to rivalling that given the prime minister at the end of his performance.

RMT boss Bob Crow
Blair took a sideswipe at union leaders like Bob Crow
And then there was Iraq. And no amount of string pulling was going to placate those delegates vehemently opposed to his war talk.

On this issue, the prime minister was uncompromising. He delivered a serious, thoughtful, even provocative declaration of intent.

Sideswipe

His basic argument was that delegates should not kid themselves into believing Saddam Hussein was not a threat.

He was, and would become an even more dangerous one if not dealt with now.

He promised them a full debate - with a hint that parliament may be recalled as soon - and politely asked them to go away and think long and hard about their position on the issue.

But he left little doubt that he is ready to press ahead in any case.

He also could not resist a sideswipe at those leading the attacks on him such as the RMT's Bob Crow.

Despite suggestions that responding to such criticism was, in effect, below him, he described them as self indulgent anachronisms.

Always respectful

A clapometer would have come in handy during this speech.

On each string-pulling issue he received varying amounts of applause - the greatest coming in recognition of Mr Monks' contribution to the union movement.

On the bits that were always going to cause him trouble - Iraq and public services - the needle did not budge.

There may have been a heckler or two, but while they failed to find an echo, such displays of impoliteness are not the usual way at this gathering.

Trade union delegates are nearly always respectful.

It is not their habit to hang, draw and quarter their party leaders - even if one or two of their more bloodthirsty comrades have brought the rope and the chopping board.

Instead, the conference expressed its feelings in the time honoured way - they gave Mr Blair a half-hearted, half-seated ovation of less than a minute.

It would be an exaggeration to say he was snubbed.

Indeed, his serious, thoughtful and clearly nervous performance may even have won over a few doubters.

But probably the best that can be said from the prime minister's point of view is that he escaped.


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10 Sep 02 | Politics
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