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Last Updated: Saturday, 9 September 2006, 13:12 GMT 14:12 UK
Relaxed and jovial Blair 'on form'
By Brian Wheeler
Political correspondent, BBC News website, central London

Tony Blair making his keynote speech
Tony Blair was in relaxed, almost jovial form

It was almost as if the past week had never happened.

If all the bloodletting and fighting over his departure date has taken its toll on the prime minister - and there was a fresh round of it in Saturday morning's papers - he was not letting it show.

Addressing an audience of loyal Blairites, at a long-planned event in central London, Mr Blair was in relaxed, almost jovial form.

The prime minister was not in denial exactly - the first thing he said when the standing ovation at his entrance had died down, was "I haven't gone yet".

'Vintage Blair'

But he had obviously decided to treat the events of the past week as a bit of a distraction, a minor bump in the long road to the eventual "triumph of Blairism", as last week's leaked memo had it.

So instead of the grim-faced figure we might have reasonably expected, we got vintage mid-period Blair, all self-deprecating quips and teasing asides.

Sure, he took the mutiny among his MPs seriously. He even reserved for it the most dire of insults in the New Labour lexicon.

All the infighting, divisions, briefing and counter-briefing of the past week had been "irredeemably old fashioned", he told the audience.

"The only thing we didn't have were the smoke-filled rooms and that's because we have banned those."

But the important thing was to restore a bit of common sense and get on with the job of governing, he told the audience.

'Among friends'

In an ironic twist, the venue hired by New Labour think tank Progress, founded 10 years ago by Peter Mandelson, for its annual conference was the TUC headquarters - the spiritual home of smoke-filled rooms and Old Labour.

Its usual occupants were all heading for Brighton for their annual conference, which Mr Blair will address for the final time next week - to the relief no doubt of all concerned, as Mr Blair joked last week.

Tony Blair making his keynote speech
The prime minister toyed with the press over his departure date

Much of the talk next week among the trade unionists will be how to get rid of Mr Blair as quickly as possible.

But here, among friends, introduced by that living embodiment of the 1997 election night, Progress's current chairman Stephen Twigg, you got the feeling they would be happy for Mr Blair to carry on forever.

When - during the brief Q&A session which followed his speech - an Italian journalist asked why Mr Blair did not just simply withdraw the troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and carry on in power - heck, he could even keep Gordon Brown on as chancellor - there was a loud cheer.

Mr Blair, as is his way, politely declined to answer that one - "let's not go there" - but his grin said it all.

However, although his speech was all about renewal, there was also a valedictory tone to it.

He was speaking without notes and toying with the press over his departure date at every mention - and there were many - of the future.

But there was also a sense that he was composing his own political obituary, or what he would like his political obituary to be.

'Can be proud'

The past 10 years have not just been about spin and PR, he insisted.

"New Labour was the product of myself and Gordon sitting down over a long period of time working out - not just the ideas and the policy and philosophical structure in which a modern Labour party could govern and not governing as a reaction to an unpopular Conservative government - but to govern on our own terms."

There is hardly anybody left in the Labour Party who wants to go back to the bad old days of the 1980s, he insisted at one point, everyone is a "progressive" now.

And - although the public like to moan sometimes - New Labour has changed Britain for the better, he argued.

Many ideas about tolerance, for example, that were "written off as loony left 15 or 20 years ago are now part of the mainstream thinking of the country - and that is something to be proud of".

Do all governments inevitably end in tears, asked one woman, who was herself almost overcome with emotion at the prospect of Mr Blair's departure.

New Labour had "defied conventional wisdom" before, he replied, and could do so again. "It is up to us to do it".

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