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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 October, 2003, 07:08 GMT 08:08 UK
Blair's 'Black Wednesday'?

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

As Black Wednesdays go, Tony Blair's was a massive damp squib.

Yes, he lost two crucial votes over foundation hospitals.

And yes, he heard the full extent of anger over the war on Iraq.

Patient
Blair will not accept NHS defeat
But not only were the walls of the Bournemouth Conference Centre left remarkably blood free, there was a resigned acknowledgement amongst many delegates that none of it had mattered anyway.

The government's policies will not change, and the war is a fact of life. The speakers said so themselves.

Health Secretary John Reid got his retaliation in first by declaring long before the hospitals votes he might lose the ballots but he had won the argument.

And a couple of speakers in the Iraq debate actually used the expression when referring to the war that "we are where we are". So that's OK then.

Key decisions

Well, for a large section of this conference, it is not OK and it never will be OK.

Even the prime minister's pleading yet unrepentant speech had not changed their minds on these key decisions.

Maybe they [delegates] just thought he [Mr Hoon] was already dead meat so wasn't worth kicking

But experience has already shown them precisely what the prime minister thinks of their opinions.

Last year he headed off the worst by appearing to promise he would not go to war without a second UN resolution.

He didn't get one and still went to war - as he was always going to do. They were not happy about that and they said so this year.

And then there was Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary who appears to be holding a grenade with the pin removed.

They don't like him and, along with most other observers, believe he will take the rap for the David Kelly affair.

But did they monster him, as some had suggested they would? No they emphatically did not.

That may partly have been because of some careful timing of speakers - particularly putting an emotional and wholly sincere Ann Clwyd up before Mr Hoon to graphically set out some of the worst horrors perpetrated by Saddam Hussein.

And it may partly have been the defence secretary's decision to call to the platform two of Saddam's victims - a decision later branded by some as hugely cynical.

Sizeable defeats

Maybe they just thought he was already dead meat so wasn't worth kicking.

Whatever the reason though, he remained "unmonstered".

Similarly, the prime minister has talked about listening to conference's concerns, but then ploughed on regardless on public sector reforms.

So they inflicted a couple of sizeable and not insignificant defeats on him.

Yet, unlike Labour conferences of the past, none of this led to frantic speculation about a fatally divided party or beleaguered leadership.

It is also likely that Home Secretary David Blunkett will get a chilly response on Thursday if he attempts to sell his identity cards scheme.

But there is an overwhelming torpor hanging over the entire proceedings.

Maybe they know they now have to resort to other means if they want to have any effect on this government.

Those other means include the ballot box - see Brent East.

And that could prove decidedly more black than any conference Wednesday.




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