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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 September 2006, 14:15 GMT 15:15 UK
Reid's end-of-rally job pitch
Analysis
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

Tony Blair wanted the Labour conference to concentrate on policy and substance, not personalities and the leadership.

John Reid
Mr Reid fanned leadership speculation

But as delegates started leaving Manchester at the end of a week dominated by leadership talk, Home Secretary John Reid appeared to fire the starting gun on the next, final, phase of the Blair era.

In a speech which may have concentrated largely on his Cabinet portfolio, he left no one in any doubt he was ready to take on Gordon Brown for the top job.

He scrupulously refused to say anything direct about his leadership intentions other than delivering one joke and urging unity over the issue.

But he repeatedly talked about the need for leadership in tackling the big issues of security and law and order.

He attacked David Cameron for failing to offer that leadership, saying the Tory leader could not take the tough decisions he was taking on a daily basis.

The tone and sweep of his speech was a textbook example of how to pitch for the leadership without delivering a leadership speech.

Lavish praise

Tony Blair, sitting on the platform to watch the performance, looked delighted and enthusiastically led the applause and standing ovation, patting his friend on the back at the end of it.

Gordon Brown's reaction was not recorded although there were immediate rumblings from within his camp that this was all part of a conference which had been marked by attempts to undermine their man's chances of becoming prime minister.

Gordon Brown
Mr Brown may fear a challenge for leadership

Former minister Peter Mandelson sparked fury in the Brown camp during the week with a brace of fringe speeches and then a radio interview which suggested the chancellor was still a flawed and frustrated character.

Cherie Blair allegedly went further by calling Mr Brown a liar when he spoke of the privilege of working with the prime minister.

The prime minister even joked about the incident, confirming to many the rift between Mr Brown and Mrs Blair, at the very least.

And - while the two men lavished praise on each other in a carefully choreographed show of unity - fringe meetings, interviews and the conference chatter were dominated by the single issue of the leadership and whether Gordon Brown was still inevitable.

Qualified success

After the preceding weeks which saw an attempted coup against the prime minister and the party veering close to civil war over the succession, that was inevitable.

The rival camps only pulled back from the brink in time for the conference when faced with dire warnings of the damage they were doing themselves, the government and the Labour Party.

Party bosses then controversially blocked any debate of the issue, or a possible resignation timetable. But that did nothing to stop the speculation and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring.

Tony Blair
Mr Blair said his farewell to conference

Tony Blair confirmed he was going - some time between now and next September's conference and Mr Brown publicly applied for the job for the first time.

John Hutton, David Milliband and Alan Johnson made workman like speeches which entirely failed to answer the questions of whether they will run for the leadership and, if so, whether they would be any good at it.

Meanwhile, the contest to replace deputy leader John Prescott, who announced he was also addressing his last conference, was already up and running with John Cruddas, Harriet Harman and Peter Hain now declared.

But, as the rally ended, Mr Blair was still able to count it a qualified success.

He was given exactly the sort of hero's send off he had undoubtedly been planning to get in a year or two. He is clearly unhappy he has been forced into early retirement but he has headed off a full-blown coup, for now.

The great fear now, of course, is that the worst is yet to come and that, now conference has ended, it will all kick off again.

At the heart of it will be the question of whether Tony Blair can really stay in Downing Street, governing effectively, for another nine months.

And that is probably why he made sure to make the time, as he left Manchester, to speak to the waiting news crews to outline the wide range of business he wants to work on and include in the Queen's Speech programme of Parliamentary business for the next year.




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