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Last Updated: Sunday, 13 February, 2005, 17:21 GMT
Rekindling the Labour love affair
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News political reporter, in Gateshead

Tony Blair
Tony Blair says he still has a "hunger" to remain as PM
So is it all back on again, or what?

Well, if a romantic weekend in Gateshead - at the classiest venue in town - can't fix a troubled marriage, what can?

And, as Tony Blair acknowledged on Sunday in his closing speech at Labour's spring conference, he has plenty of fixing to do.

The party may be ahead in the polls, but the past two years have seen Mr Blair test the party and, arguably, the British people's patience to the limit.

It's not just Iraq - although that still rankles - it is foundation hospitals, university tuition fees, public private partnerships and the sense that Mr Blair had simply stopped listening.

Now - with a general election approaching - he needs them back on side, fighting his corner.

And he tried every trick in the book over the course of the weekend to win them back.

'One last chance'

He began on Friday with an overblown romantic gesture, sweeping into town aboard a giant red helicopter, like a latter-day Milk Tray man.

Now you, the British people, have to sit down and decide whether you want the relationship to continue
Tony Blair
But by Sunday the mood had changed entirely, and he was practically standing on the front doorstep, a crumpled bunch of service station flowers in his hand, begging for one last chance.

"Politicians don't deliver miracles," he told delegates in a conference closing speech that was described in advance as "highly personal" by party workers.

This was Mr Blair in a role we have seen a lot more of since Iraq. No longer the messianic leader of a New Britain, which "had a thousand days to prepare for a thousand years".

He was conversational, contrite even.

Actually, politics is like a relationship, he told delegates, "between you the British people and me, the person you chose as your prime minister."

'You're not listening

He spoke of "friends sometimes being lost as the big decisions mounted, and the thousands of little things that irritate and grate".

"And then all of a sudden there you are, the British people, thinking: you're not listening and I think: you're not hearing me. And before you know it I raise my voice. I raise mine. Some of you throw a bit of crockery.

Tony Blair
The prime minister in 'Milk Tray man' mode
"And now you, the British people, have to sit down and decide whether you want the relationship to continue."

But crucially, the one thing he didn't tell the British people - or the Labour Party - was "I can change".

"We got here by being New Labour. We will stay here by being New Labour," he told them.

And then the clincher - the phrase summing up New Labour's philosophy (and sets opponents' teeth on edge): "Traditional values in a modern setting."

This will not have gone down well with the Old Labour element.

'Stupid, backward'

Mr Blair also spoke at length about the party's six pledges - a positive antidote perhaps to the accusations of negative campaigning and "dirty tricks" that dominated the headlines in the run up to the conference.

The messages have been criticised for being vague, but they are supported by more detailed documents.

They are calculated to appeal to voters' self interest. The days when people were asked to vote Labour for the good of society have clearly taken a back seat for now.

Election strategist Alan Milburn, who was much in evidence throughout the weekend, schmoozing delegates and chatting to reporters, thinks it is important for voters to be told what's in it for them.

They are also, as Mr Blair alluded to in his speech, unashamedly populist - this is what people have told ministers they are really concerned about.

Pledge 6: "protecting your country's borders" was reportedly added at the last minute in response to recent Tory announcements on that issue.

But Mr Blair was at pains to distance himself from the Tories' "crude quota system," which he dubbed "the stupidest and most backward policy you could think of".

'Thorough kicking'

The Tories received a thorough kicking throughout the weekend, as ministers fell back on the one stand-by that is guaranteed to get everyone in the party going.

John Reid summed it all up ahead of Mr Blair's speech, as he thanked delegates for bearing with the party through "difficult and serious times".

"Twenty years ago, Neil Kinnock said that whatever differences we have the Tories are our enemy. They must be defeated. There is no higher priority."

And that, ultimately, was the point of Mr Blair's speech.

"We can't promise paradise. But we can make progress. We haven't relinquished our idealism but it is tempered by realism. Forward not back."

Labour not the Tories.

Possibly not the most romantic of proposals, but with the church almost certainly booked for 5 May, it will have to do.


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