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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 October, 2003, 13:09 GMT 14:09 UK
Superficial victory for Blair?

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

If Tony Blair was given a tenner for every headline that proclaimed he was facing his greatest leadership test ever, he could retire early.

If he then got double or quits for every story a few days later declaring how he had won over his critics, he could buy Tuscany as his retirement home.

Blair left Bournemouth pleased with himself
So there was a certain predictability about the way this year's Labour conference unfolded.

For once, however, it was absolutely accurate to claim that Tony Blair was facing his greatest leadership test yet. He pretty much accepted that in his keynote speech.

There were plenty of signs that - in the wake of Iraq, the Hutton Inquiry and the row over public services reforms - his spell over the Labour Party had finally been broken.

Predictions that he would be defeated over his controversial plans for foundation hospitals were bang on.

And claims he faced a serious backlash over Iraq also proved accurate.

Best speech

It was only thanks to some classic old Labour-style fixes that the issue was not put to a vote.

If it had been, there is no doubt in anyone's mind, including the leadership's, that he would have lost it.

What no one predicted was that Chancellor Gordon Brown would make things worse by setting out his own leadership credentials in probably his best speech for a decade or more.

Patient
Hospital defeat will be ignored
Yet the prime minister still left Bournemouth clearly believing he had rescued the situation and amid a flurry of flattering headlines.

There are any number of reasons for this.

The big defeats came the day after the prime minister had delivered his speech. In a sense, the caravan had already moved on.

And, thanks to the usual stage management and arm twisting, there was a positive, if superficial, gloss over the entire proceedings.

There was also the growing realisation that many of the ordinary delegates to this conference have, to a great extent, given up expecting too much.

Hard experience has taught them that they can have their say, let off steam and even defeat the leadership - but that absolutely nothing will change as a result.

Hour of trouble

They have to find other ways of expressing their opposition. Things like voting Liberal Democrat or, more likely in this gathering, not voting at all.

Tony Blair suggested that he actually understood how important the Labour Party was to him
This year - commensurate with the scale of the prime minister's troubles - they were offered a bit more than usual.

Tony Blair suggested that he actually understood how important the Labour Party was to him.

Unlike previous conference speeches, he spoke directly to his party.

Brown will be remembered
He almost asked for forgiveness over Iraq, and he certainly pleaded with them to stick by him in "their" hour of trouble.

But he also told them that, whatever Gordon Brown might think, he was still the best leader they had got.

It was a mixture of flattery, crawling and self-belief. And it worked on the night. They are still bewitched by him.

No change

Anyone expecting that he would be heckled was disappointed. In any case, the modern Labour Party just doesn't do that.

This year, more than ever, the delegates really wanted to hear what he had to say.

Conference reminded everyone that there is great opposition in the Labour movement to top-up fees, the war on Iraq and public sector reforms
But it is a pretty fair bet to say that in a couple of weeks' time things will have returned to their pre-conference state.

Gordon Brown's speech will be remembered for its brazenness and Tony Blair's declaration that he has no reverse gear will enter popular political culture. But that will be it.

Conference reminded everyone that there is great opposition in the Labour movement to top-up fees, the war on Iraq and public sector reforms.

And it reminded delegates and the wider world that Tony is not for turning on any of these things.

It also reminded the media in particular that the Labour party still hasn't broken free of its attachment to the man that has given them a record period in government.

Nothing that happened in Bournemouth this year changed any of that.

And that must mean that the prime minister is little better off after the conference than he was before.

The great trick was that this week did not actually make matters worse.


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