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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 September, 2003, 16:44 GMT 17:44 UK
Blair lays it on the line

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent in Bournemouth

Tony Blair had one simple job to do in his make-or-break conference speech.

He had to persuade his party to stick with him.

But what could he tell them, what could he offer the delegates to finally end the crisis over his leadership that is overshadowing everything the government does?

His job was made doubly difficult by the previous day's speech from chancellor Gordon Brown, who had set out his leadership stall by laying claim to the party's soul.

Mr Blair urged party to take him - or leave him
The prime minister's greatest weapon, the one he has used time and again in the past, had been denied him.

He could not ask the conference to trust him - that would have been too big a risk.

Instead he chose to appeal to the head and to deploy what many saw as the nuclear option.

He told them he could not and would not do things differently.

"All you can do in a modern world is to decide what is the right way and try to walk in it.

"It's not being out of touch. After six years, more battered without but stronger within, it's the only leadership I can offer.

"And it's the only leadership worth taking."

Put simply - and it was said without anger or bitterness - "take me as I am or don't take me at all". High stakes indeed.

Press ahead

He refused to apologise for any of his past acts, particularly ridding the world of Saddam Hussein.

And he insisted, as advertised, that he would press ahead with his reforms to public services and student finances.

But the language was less confrontational than some had feared.

It was a case of explaining rather than insisting, more inclusive than presidential.

And the whole carefully scripted and stage-managed event was designed to place him in the heart of his party.

Instead of standing alone and apart from the conference he was surrounded by supportive members.

His speech was littered with the word "we".

Scare

That is not an easy trick to pull off for a Labour prime minister who has never been seen as a creature of his party.

And it only partly worked.

His attempt to use the big scare, as previewed by the likes of party chairman Ian McCartney earlier in the week, also only partly worked.

He did not duck any of the hard questions but he asked the party to follow him
His recalling of Neil Kinnock's famous 1985 battle with Militant won applause, but it suggested his critics were from the same mould.

They will not like that.

It also suggested, with some good reason, that that is as deep as his Labour roots go.

His "vision thing" was better - not just an historic third term but an historic realignment of the political forces shaping Britain and the world.

It was a highly personal speech, even an appeal, tinged with what occasionally appeared genuine emotion.

He did not duck any of the hard questions but he asked the party to follow him.

Question

And most of them are still at least a little bit - and some quite a lot - bewitched by him.

After all he is the man who delivered this record term of office.

But they love him not as one of them but as an outsider who they can't take completely into their hearts and who often bemuses them but who they can't now imagine living without. Until now.

The prime minister started by accepting the troubles besetting him and declaring: "So what do we do? Give up on it or get on with it. That is the question."

In fact, more might have been Hamlet's quote "to be or not to be, that is the question".

Before he spoke it most certainly was the question and despite a powerful, chest-baring speech, it probably still is.


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