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Last Updated: Friday, 8 October, 2004, 06:49 GMT 07:49 UK
Marr's conference season verdict
Andrew Marr
By Andrew Marr
BBC News political editor

What have we learned from this conference season, three short weeks at the seaside as the nights darken and the Channel turns chilly?

Some hard facts, certainly: that Tony Blair had a heart flutter and a minor op; and that he intends to try to stay in power for another four or five years, despite or because of Gordon Brown's frustration.

That Michael Howard believes that, had it not been for Churchill, he'd have died as a small boy in a Nazi concentration camp.

Michael Howard
Howard put trust in politics centre stage
That the Liberal Democrats think they can take another 30 seats in a general election, knocking out a row of senior Tories.

Oh yes, and that the minnow newcomer, the UK Independence Party, has nevertheless grown big enough to have its very own leadership kerfuffle, courtesy of the charisma-larded TV star and former Labour MP, Robert Kilroy-Silk.

We've learned a bit more about the main parties' electoral strategies, too.

They are all struggling, one way or another, with the perceived problem of trust, or rather general electoral mistrust of the political classes.

How to get the voters to take notice once more?

The Lib Dems and Tories are piling into Tony Blair, his Iraq war, and his platoon of spin-doctors as the source of most of the trouble.

'West Side Story'

The Conservatives have also taken New Labour's old pledge card idea, and stretched it across a calendar, making it a diary of promises, day by day, and week by week.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott
John Prescott made much of hunt protesters' contorted faces

Labour, meanwhile - and we can call it "Labour" again, Tony Blair having largely dropped the "New" in his conference speech - is responding with a detailed manifesto of mainstream, domestic pledges and a doughty defence of its economic competence.

Labour does not feel, or act, like a party which expects to be turned out of office next year.


It oozes a bland corporate confidence.

Behind that, of course, it is experiencing a renewed and vicious bout of internal faction-fighting.

Its Brighton conference reminded journalists forcibly of "West Side Story".

Gordon Brown and Tony Blair
Tony Blair and Gordon Brown share a moment in the conference hall

Brownites and Blairites swaggered around in mutually suspicious gangs, eyeing each other and whispering, as if the Jets and the Sharks had found themselves suddenly transported to the breakfast tables of the Metropole and Grand hotels.

Will this really harm them?

There is no genuine ideological gap between the rival camps.

'Premonition of a row'

It's mostly personal.

Yet the level of antagonism was genuinely shocking; whatever happens next, things cannot carry on like this.

Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy
Mr Kennedy prepares for his key-note speech

The Liberal Democrats are not, for the time being, suffering from any comparable leadership frenzies.

Charles Kennedy infuriated some of his younger, leaner colleagues earlier in the year by what seemed a ludicrously laid-back attitude to the job.

But so far, it seems to be working, and he has raised his game, giving a strong speech.

There is a potential political divide in the party, between the market-orientated, anti-statist Lib Dems clustered around a volume of essays called the Orange Book, and those you might call conventional social democrats.

'Hand signals'

But that's a premonition of a row, a squall and a smudge on the horizon, not yet the real thing.

Similarly, if you looked closely during the Tory conference, you could see people lining up to argue with one another after the election.

Henley MP Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson sits through yet another conference speech

The biggest group around Michael Howard are moderates, who think the Conservatives have to hold their nerve on centre-right policies, not lurching towards the UK Independence Party, or making wild promises on tax.

They are currently in the ascendant.

But there are potential leadership candidates on the Right making personal hand-signals to the Tory activists, who are now crucial to any succession, on issues like Europe, tax and immigration.

'Coup de theatre'

It isn't a fight - not now, not as we enter the winter whose spring might bring the election.

But if the Tories lose, it will be a fight.

Pensions protest
Demonstrators strip to make their point about the pensions crisis

My final thought about this conference season, however, is that it felt overshadowed.

There was the grim challenge of the Iraq hostage crisis and Ken Bigley's fate - felt particularly strongly during the Liberal Democrat and Labour weeks.

There was the Hartlepool by-election, in which the Tories came fourth.

There was the confrontation between John Kerry and George Bush, and the report of the Iraq Survey Group, which will have a far bigger impact on international affairs than anything said in a British party conference.

Tony Blair sings
Tony Blair sings with the Corus steel workers choir
And there was the prime minister's cool coup de theatre on the subject of his own future.

He waited until everyone had just left Brighton.

Power isn't with the party workers.

It's a melancholy thought to end on, but we journalists have spent three weeks in conference centres, while hardly feeling central at all.

Full text of Howard's speech
05 Oct 04  |  Politics
Full text of Blair's speech
28 Sep 04  |  Politics
Full text of Kennedy's speech
23 Sep 04  |  Politics



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