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Last Updated: Sunday, 24 September 2006, 11:34 GMT 12:34 UK
Blair's forlorn conference hope?
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News Website

Tony Blair interviewed on the Sunday AM programme
Mr Blair apparently wants Labour conference not to be dominated by leadership talk
Tony Blair wants the Labour conference to concentrate on re-engaging with the public and not descend into a week of frenzied speculation about the leadership.

It is almost certainly a forlorn hope and, just to prove the point, his failure to answer questions in an interview on the BBC's Sunday AM programme succeeded only in stoking up that particular fire.

He refused to repeat his support for Gordon Brown as his inevitable successor, even when confronted with a newspaper report claiming that he had decided not to back Mr Brown when the time came.

He also refused to back the chancellor's "big idea" of hiving off NHS management, simply saying it was something that could be debated.

That seemed to kill off any suggestion it was a policy agreed by the two men.

No timetable

The best he was prepared to do was to insist he did not "resile" from anything he had said previously about Mr Brown.

Instead, he insisted the Cabinet had agreed last week that all leadership talk should be avoided at the conference in favour of turning outwards to the voters and setting out a programme for the future.

SUNDAY: Conference gathers, with round of media interviews including Blair on Sunday AM, Brown on Politics Show
MONDAY: Brown's keynote speech. Also taking to the platform are Alistair Darling and John Hutton
TUESDAY: Blair's keynote speech. Also taking to the platform are Margaret Beckett and Ruth Kelly.
WEDNESDAY: Alan Johnson, David Miliband, Patricia Hewitt all take to the platform
THURSDAY: John Reid, Peter Hain and John Prescott all take to the stage.

He was not, therefore, going to play the game of debating the leadership. That also meant he ruled out offering any date for his departure from Downing Street - something many delegates at the Manchester rally are demanding.

The danger, however, is that the prime minister's last conference as leader and prime minister - and possibly, as he hinted himself, last even as a delegate - will see the rival leadership camps using it as a platform to set out their stalls.

Whatever he may say, every speech from any minister over the coming days will be scrutinised for signs of their leadership intentions.

The chancellor was the first to do just that by revealing his proposals for the NHS, which follow the example he set with his decision to give the Bank of England independence straight after the 1997 election.

Plot denial

That has long been seen as one of his greatest successes and he clearly thinks it is an example to follow.

But the conference will be looking for more when Mr Brown makes his big set-piece speech on Monday.

To a large extent it is the chancellor who has the most to prove - and to lose. He has been thrown onto the back foot by claims he was behind the attempted coup against the prime minister earlier in the month.

Those claims are difficult to erase, even when, as on the BBC's Politics Show, he states categorically that he was not plotting or aware of any plotting.

The chances of a senior rival emerging from the Blairite wing of the party have risen as a result and Mr Brown will need to show the conference he is still the only game in town.

You only have to look back a year to David Davis at the Conservative conference to see an occasion when a below-par speech scuppered a leadership "certainty" his chance.

Mr Blair's big speech will follow on Tuesday and is expected to see him trying to map out a continuing, Blairite agenda, to take the party to the next general election.

He will risk protests over issues like Iraq and the public services and may even face demands for him to go now, particularly from delegates who believe they have been banned by the party bosses from debating a resignation timetable.

But the current feeling is that he will be given a warm response from delegates grateful for his past record and determined not to pitch the party back into the in-fighting that marked the past couple of weeks.

What still remains unclear is whether Mr Blair can realistically deliver a farewell conference speech and then return to Downing Street and continue to govern for another nine months before resigning.

There are plenty at the conference - even those who will give him a hero's welcome - who simply believe that may be untenable

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