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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 October, 2003, 13:06 GMT 14:06 UK
Analysis: Blair to ignore NHS defeat?

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

It was clear as day that Bill Morris was dismayed his last speech to a Labour conference had to be this one.

Operating theatre
Blair will not accpet NHS defeat
This veteran Labour campaigner's parting shot saw him having, in his eyes, to defend one of the Labour movement's most cherished institutions - the NHS - against the government.

He delivered a passionate and comprehensive assault on Tony Blair's plans for foundation hospitals.

And he spoke for all those in the conference hall opposed to the policy when he branded it a back door policy, drawn up on the back of an envelope in the back of a taxi.

It had not been in any Labour election manifesto, or consultation body or in any Green Paper.

It had, he said, been parachuted onto the government's agenda - and it had happened against the wishes of large parts, possibly the majority, of the Labour movement.

People in pain

The delegates loved it and it will have served to ensure the vote against this hugely controversial measure was maximised.

It was left to Health Secretary Dr John Reid to try - and ultimately fail - to rescue the prime minister from this looming defeat.

He pulled every lever going - primarily harking back to Bevan to suggest the government's proposal was a natural extension of his post war revolution.

It was all about helping people in pain - your mothers, your children, he said.

And he gave a passionate defence of how the government was determined to carry through a radical reform of the NHS to serve the needs of working people.

It was all good, emotive stuff. But what he did not spell out clearly enough for many of the delegates was precisely how the creation of foundation hospitals would achieve that.

Invoking the name of Bevan and suggesting any opposition to the proposals was a betrayal of traditional Labour values and principles may even have backfired in some eyes.

Not budging

And, of course, it was entirely undermined by an interview he had done just a couple of hours before in which he said that the unions might win the vote but the government had won the argument.

In other words - and this will come as no surprise to anyone - the votes are irrelevant.

Tony Blair is set on a path he believes is right and he is not budging from it.

The fact that this unrepentant attitude came the day after the prime minister's big speech in which he suggested he was listening to concerns did not go unnoticed.

The truth is Tony Blair believes he needs foundation hospitals to work if he is to see the improvements he wants in the NHS before the next general election.

The alternative - and it is one many at the conference would support - would be tax rises to fund more government spending.

But the prime minister has closed off that road. He has no room for manoeuvre.

This issue is still one of the handful that can do his leadership serious damage.

All eyes are now on the big unions to see how they react to his refusal to accept the conference defeat.

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