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Friday, 27 September, 2002, 11:05 GMT 12:05 UK
Same old story for Blair

It must say something about Tony Blair that every time he prepares to address his party conference it is described as the most testing performance of his premiership so far.

And here we go again. The prime minister is facing his most critical conference yet with rebellions over Iraq and the public services presenting him with the greatest threat of his leadership so far.

Of Mr Blair's six conference speeches - including this year's - only the first two were genuinely un-troublesome.


The fed-up needle was firmly in the red and Mr Blair faced a hugely hostile conference and public

Even in 1999, just two years after his historic election victory he was facing the first, growing, signs of disillusion amongst the grassroots.

New Labour had just been soundly thrashed in the European Parliament elections with all the signs that those converts who had put him into power were now reserving their judgement and that previous supporters were abandoning him.

He had to remind the conference delegates how well they had done and that things really would start getting better.

It wasn't too difficult then to rekindle the spark of optimism.

Apology

By the following year, the fed-up needle was firmly in the red and Mr Blair faced a hugely hostile conference and public.

There were rebellions coming from all sides over the derisory 75p pension increase, the fuel tax protests and even the farce surrounding the Dome.

Things were so bad a clearly pressured Blair had to come to the conference to apologise.

He admitted to making mistakes and said, in effect, he would put them right.

Well, there was an election looming.

Pensioners and the fuel protesters were the immediate benefactors.

Plead

Last year the conference was overshadowed by the events of 11 September and there was the general feeling that nobody wanted a row over domestic issues when there was such a major international crisis unfolding and still a sense of mourning for the victims of the atrocity.


The unions are more militant than for years and are being led by more left-wingers than for almost two decades

Had that not been the case, he would have faced major criticisms from the unions and many grassroots supporters over his New Labour programme.

The prime minister still used the conference to try and reassure his union critics that he was not out to privatise the NHS.

He even had to plead with the party not to indulge in an internal battle.

And that fight was, indeed, averted.

But it was only postponed. And it comes back this year with a vengeance.

Pre-emptive strike

The unions are more militant than for years and are being led by more left-wingers than for almost two decades.

As GMB boss John Edmonds points out, no one will be elected as a union leader nowadays on a Blairite ticket.

They are far from reassured over the public services and the prime minister has, this time, attempted to get his retaliation in first with a pre-emptive strike in a pamphlet setting out the case for the private finance initiative.

But he is facing the real threat of public sector strikes, a fire fighters walkout and more disruption on the trains.

Headlines about winters of discontent are already being written, not to mention the autumn of the New Labour years.

Heart

Then there is Iraq - quite probably the biggest potential threat to his leadership since he was elected. Really.

This issue goes to the heart of many of the criticisms of Mr Blair.

His closeness to the US and evident good relations with right-wing world leaders, his allegedly dictatorial style of government and his tendency to put international issues before domestic concerns are all echoed in this rebellion.

If, as most now believe is the case, he is ready to go to war alongside George Bush if the rest of the world don¿t do the business he may find himself in real and potentially fatal trouble.

There will be a huge backbench rebellion, some ministers might resign and he could find himself isolated at home.

Delighted

He will be left in no doubt about those worries in Blackpool during this week.

In the past, the prime minister has seen some of these clashes as the clearest possible sign that he is doing something right.

Just as with his tearing up of the effectively redundant Clause Four of the constitution - Labour's last remaining nod to socialism - he will be delighted that he faces huge opposition on some of his policies.

He will claim that, on these, he is the radical and the critics are the "wreckers" or the "voices of conservatism".

It would be hugely foolhardy of him to use such language this year - even moderate TUC boss John Monks has told him that is not on.

T-shirts

And such an assault on his critics could badly backfire this year, ensuring any future strike action in the public services, for example, was even more bitter.

The "proud to be a wrecker" T shirts have already been distributed by Unison.

He is also not about to start laying into his critics over Iraq. On this he is in persuasion mode. But it is a mammoth task.

There will be other issues in Blackpool of course. Education, crime, and the euro referendum - or lack of one - will all feature.

But this conference is overwhelmingly about the confrontation between the prime minister and his critics on the public services and Iraq.

It is indeed his most testing conference yet.


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