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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 September, 2003, 16:58 GMT 17:58 UK
Blair Idol works his magic

By Mark Davies
BBC News Online political reporter in Bournemouth

The queues snaked through the conference centre, hundreds of people all clutching yellow or green tickets, for a chance to see him in the flesh, the big crowd-puller who first burst on to the scene back in 1994.

Some say he's past his best these days, that he's lost the buzz of old. A fading star trying to keep the show on the road when other much more marketable types are waiting eagerly in the wings.

But still they come, hoping for a revival of Blair Idol. Hoping he'll put in a barnstorming performance, mixing the big hits of the past with some great new numbers. Could he, they wondered, succeed where so many others fail when their careers seem to stumble?

The warm-up music set the tone for what Mr Blair must have been hoping for the speech. "Ready to rise again, lifted, too much conversation not enough action, altogether now". Somehow you can't imagine it was the work of the prime minister: "Hey Cherie," he shouts from in front of the CD rack, "I reckon a bit of The Farm on Tuesday, whaddya think?"

As a whole, it wasn't a classic, but there were moments when the old magic was clearly still present
As is traditional he kept them waiting, allowing those in the hall to revel in a frenzy of clapping as Labour's achievements - as they see it - flashed up on the big screen.

Then the lights lowered and the main attraction appeared to a huge, rapturous ovation. But was it the applause of a crowd celebrating past achievements with a trip down memory lane, or that of an lifelong fan club with an enduring passion for their hero?

Mr Blair carefully eased into the performance with some crowd pleasers.

Panto

Things have changed, he said: "I now look my age - you feel yours." He'd thought of starting with "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" he confessed, but thought better of it.

There was a touch of pantomime too. "It's a testing time - what do we do?" he asked. "Get on with it," they answered. Perhaps he really did fancy himself as an actor.

But he soon got down to the nitty-gritty: the recognition that he had upset many of his followers over the Iraq war.

It was a tough section for Mr Blair, and his audience. He admitted he'd upset many of them - hurt them, made them angry. But it was the right thing to do, he insisted.

The performance which followed ebbed and flowed. As a whole, it wasn't a classic, but there were moments when the old magic was clearly still present.

There was passion, but not in the style with which Gordon Brown wowed the conference on Monday.

If the chancellor had gone at it full pelt with a rowdy version of old standards, this was more a case of a gentle - and often deeply emotional - acoustic set, an attempt to engage his audience with a mixture of home truths and plain speaking.

Airing

And there was something for everyone. True, he decided against playing that old favourite "Socialism", but where once he belted out "Scars on My Back" in reference to public service workers, this time they got nothing but Admiration.

For New Labourites, the big hit of the 90s - Renewal - got a good airing, as did Responsibility and Opportunity, and some classic Blairspeak: "Where we have to pick our way to sanity though a cacophony of pressure and hassle which are not the product of any one moment in time but of the times in which we live."

Right, gotcha.

Other bits didn't go down quite so well: telling the rich back in the 70s that they'd be squeezed till the pips squeaked hadn't been such a good idea, had it?, he said.

The lack of reaction suggested there were some in the hall who quite fancied giving the pips of the rich a good old squeak.

More well received though was his memory of another who once graced the same stage, the beast of Bournemouth himself, Neil Kinnock.

Tingling

His speech attacking Militant in 1985 had set the young Blair's heart pounding, he said. That bit, they loved.

But Mr Blair was at his best with the smoochy numbers, tingling the spines of the faithful by telling them of the difference he believed they were making to many lives.

And there was real emotion as he told of the letters he had received from the mothers of soldiers who lost their lives in the war with Iraq.

One of the bereaved parents opposed the conflict - the other said it was the right thing to do. And there was a hush in the hall as the prime minister said: "I don't believe anyone who tells you when they receive letters like that they don't suffer any doubt."

The jokes were good too. He wouldn't be leading a rendition of Kum-bay-ah, he said. He'd leave that to the Lib Dems.

By now he was almost over. The revival gig had, it seemed, gone down pretty well: not exactly award-winning but enough to keep the faithful still hoping for big hits in the future.

Yes, he had told his fans with an almost audible gulp, we've had a rough patch.

And he looked out to the crowd to see if they were with him. And with him they were.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Jo Coburn
"Tony Blair's speech here today is being viewed as his most testing to date"



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