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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 September 2006, 16:09 GMT 17:09 UK
Blair's farewell performance
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

Tony Blair's TUC performance left little doubt it came from a man openly acknowledging he was living his final months - even weeks, perhaps - in office.

Tony Blair
Blair speech was farewell performance
In two weeks' time he will do it all again when he addresses the Labour party rally in Manchester.

And that has inevitably raised the awkward question - after two major farewell gigs, how will he be able to walk back into Downing Street and carry on as before for another nine months.

The fact this was his last appearance at the TUC as prime minister was clearly a matter of celebration for some in the hall - notably those protesters who did their best to disrupt it.

But Mr Blair's relationship with the unions has never been close - indeed, one of New Labour's core policies was to distance the party from the movement.

And there have always been those who wanted him out and those who disagreed fundamentally with his policies, particularly on the public services and Iraq.

No enthusiasm

This time, however, they expressed their feelings more directly than ever before.

The banner waving, walkout and heckling, may not have been up there with the infamous roasting he suffered at the hands of the Women's Institute some years ago.

Bob Crow
Protesters were warned they were helping enemies

And they may have happened even if Mr Blair had not said he was on his way within the next year. Many in the union movement have been running out of patience with the prime minister for some time.

But - and this is precisely one of the things the prime minister was always well-aware of - now he is on the way out there are many who just want him to get on with it and feel able to express their frustration and anger.

And that was the atmosphere that hung over the entire event. Even when he was pushing all the right union buttons - the minimum wage, tackling pensioner poverty and so on - there was just no enthusiasm from the hall.

There was a bit of emotion as he told the protesters they were playing directly into their enemies' hands.

And on more than one occasion Mr Blair showed his own anger at his critics shouting from the body of the hall and suggested he was getting "warmed up" for the clashes.

Awkward question

But, as the proceedings drew to a close, he launched into an off-the-cuff farewell performance that openly recognised he was nearing retirement - and in the process led to speculation he was planning an earlier exit than currently expected.

Peter Hain
Hain will run as deputy leader
He gave a passionate defence of his record, combined with a warning that there is no such thing as a perfect government.

The only thing that mattered, he suggested, was being in power in order to transform society in the way his government had done over the past decade.

That got a bit more warmth - but there was no ovation and it appeared that even some of his supporters had already moved on.

That impression was encouraged by the fact that, moments earlier, Peter Hain had, in effect, kicked off the deputy leadership election campaign by announcing he would be standing.

So, the Blair farewell tour has started in earnest and, in two weeks' time, moves to Manchester for the Labour conference.

Before today there was plenty of speculation that he would receive a rough ride at that rally as well.

But it may just be that this event has acted as a pressure valve and that the prime minister's open recognition that he is in his last days will produce a warmer response.


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