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Last Updated: Friday, 1 October, 2004, 00:36 GMT 01:36 UK
Iraq overshadows Labour rally
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online political reporter in Brighton

John Prescott wound up Labour's annual conference on Thursday with a characteristically tubthumping speech.

Tony Blair
Mr Blair joins in with the red flag
But it was Tony Blair's performance - dragged centre stage to join a steelworkers' choir from Redcar in the traditional singing of Jerusalem and The Red Flag - that will linger in the memory.

This was before the news broke about his pending hospital treatment for an irregular heartbeat, but the prime minister seemed a little ill-at-ease.

He managed the words to Jerusalem without too much trouble.

But his rendition of the old Socialist anthem seemed a little less assured.

Earlier, Mr Prescott went all out to breathe some fire into the belly of party activists to go out and win Labour's "historic third term".

It was an energetic speech containing a great deal of Tory bashing, and a few swipes at the Lib Dems.

No mention of Iraq

A sort of Michael Howard "video nasty" was shown in the hall beforehand, with archive footage of the Tory leader interspersed with the poll tax riots, dole queues and Black Wednesday.

And this was the theme picked up by Prescott, who mimicked Michael Heseltine's old conference taunt that Labour would go "left, left, left" if they ever got into government.

Prescott claimed a Howard government would go "right, right, right".

Tellingly, the deputy prime minister did not make a single mention of Iraq.

The story of the conference week has largely been the party leadership's attempt to switch focus away from the war and on to domestic issues.

Troops out move

But the ongoing horror of Ken Bigley's captivity kept bringing it back into sharp relief.

Some party members attempted to pin Mr Blair down on setting a date for the withdrawal of troops, a move eventually thwarted by a bit of good old fashioned back room bargaining.

And on Tuesday, Mr Blair delivered what was seen by many as an unusually low-key conference speech.

The interruptions by protesters didn't help, of course.

But given that this was almost certainly the final conference before a general election, there was little of the messianic fervour of old.

Sorry and not sorry

There was much talk beforehand that the speech would include some kind of apology for getting it wrong on weapons of mass destruction.

Early versions circulated to evening newspaper reporters contained the word "sorry".

In the final version, Mr Blair said he "can apologise" for getting it wrong on WMD, but he will not apologise for getting rid of Saddam Hussein.

So he was sorry and not sorry.

Time will tell whether this will be enough to satisfy what Jack Straw admitted at a fringe meeting are a sceptical electorate.

Bono speech

The speech of the conference, in the view of many Labour people, was not delivered by a politician at all.

The party has a tradition of inviting high profile figures to address its annual rally. In the past it has played host to Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela.

This year, rock star Bono gave a well-judged, funny and, at times, even moving speech.

He was passionate about bringing justice to Africa, in a way that politicians, constrained by diplomacy and the strictures of power, are rarely allowed to be.

Also, as Mr Prescott was quick to seize on in his speech, he made a pretty good case for joining the Labour party, praising hard working Labour ministers and calling Gordon Brown and Tony Blair "great men".

Cabinet spat

Ahead of the conference, the newspapers were full of a supposedly bloody clash of the cabinet titans - Alan Milburn and Gordon Brown.

Mr Milburn was certainly much in evidence on the fringe, in shirtsleeves, urging activists not to rest on their laurels.

It was all about the future, he told them, tuning into people's aspirations and giving them something new and radical.

In his Monday speech, Mr Brown said Labour's economic record was the key to winning the next election.

This was seized on by the opposition as evidence of deep dysfunction at the heart of government over Labour's next manifesto.

Whatever the case, the story is likely to remain in the headlines until polling day next year, or whenever it comes.

As, no doubt, will the issue of Iraq.

Why Labour hopes to win Iraq conference debate

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