Blair wins applause but ..

Tony Blair got the standing ovation he needed, after a conference speech that had been billed as the most important of his political career.

    All smiles - but behind the Blair grin doubts must be forming

    But as delegates shuffled out, the dissent in his party showed no signs of abating.

    “Get rid of the false choice between principles and no principles,” the prime minister had defiantly told them. “Replace it with the true choice: Forward or back. I can only go one way. I’ve not got a reverse gear.”

    In front of the world's television cameras they cheered him for a full seven minutes – in comparison to Gordon Brown’s two minute ovation yesterday.

    But in the untelevised Tregonwell Hall overspill area, Blair was politely applauded for just 25 seconds before party members stood, to walk out.

    ''If he doesn't have a reverse gear, it means he's not prepared to listen..''

    Diane Abbot, MP

    “If he doesn't have a reverse gear, it means he's not prepared to listen which is what all the problems have been about,” said the Labour MP Diane Abbot.


    The war in Iraq has been the elephant in the conference living room, which party organisers have tried to pretend does not exist.

    Delegates may be able to indirectly address the subject in a debate tomorrow, but there is unlikely to be a vote, as the leadership would very likely lose.

    As Blair spoke, the result was disaffection off-camera in Tregonwen Hall. For every 10 seconds of applause Blair received in the main hall, he was clapped for just two, by the distracted and fidgety party members there.

    Speaking passionately, Blair asked the delegates to put themselves in his shoes. "Imagine you are PM and you receive this intelligence ... What do I do? Say I've got the intelligence but I've a hunch it's wrong?"

    There was no easy choice, he intoned. “We who started the war must finish the peace.” But his words cut little ice with the MP Alan Simpson.

    Prime Minister Tony Blair hugs
    his wife Cherie after his speech


    “The reality is that the people who started the war must end the occupation,” Simpson told Al “Only the UN can deliver peace.”

    “Few would disagree that Iraq is better without Saddam,” he added. “The question is whether it is better without water, electricity, civil order and a sense of dignity. The answer is no.”

    Nassir al-Khalifa, the Qatari ambassador and foreign ministry spokesman also had some questions for Tony Blair. “When will Iraq get self-determination?” he asked. “When will there be elections? When will the country be run by the Iraqis themselves?”


    “Blair had nothing new to say about any of this, or about Palestine. Last year he was much more clear cut. This year the Palestinian question was just a footnote to his speech.”

    His words were echoed by Ali Hamad, the ambassador for the League of Arab States. “Blair spoke of two states but while one is already there, the other doesn't exist,” he complained. “People are not being told the truth about Israel.”

    As always, much of the real conference business was done in private. A representative of the Sheffield Corporate Investment group said his organisation had come to the conference to lobby for contracts to rebuild Iraq.

    He was outspoken when explaining why. “I think that because the British people paid for this war, fought in it - and died in it - then we should get some of the contracts afterwards. They shouldn’t all go to America,” he told me.

    Alan Simpson though, was not sympathetic. “It’s actually quite sickening to hear that people are talking in terms of our being entitled to payback in post-war Iraq, because of the money we put into bombing the living daylights out of it,” he said.

    “It’s money and a piece of the action that are deciding our interests there, not morality.”


    “Maybe I'm being naive but he's gone up in my estimation,” said 27 years old Alex Snowden after Blair's speech. “Even though I don’t agree with the war, I felt that he spoke his mind and restored my faith in the Labour Party. It’s about personalities as well as policies.”

    Blair’s oratory was, said Magraret Beckett, the environment minister, “a great speech, just what the conference wanted and needed to hear. It will end the murmurings about the prime minister’s leadership, apart from a few odd usual suspects.”

    The spectre of Gordon Brown
    was never very far away

    Alan Simpson took a more reflective perspective. “The reality is that there will be no leadership challenge before the next election,” he said. “Tony Blair is not going to jump and no-one else has anything like the inclination or the will to risk trying to push him

    Unsurprisingly, the prime minister’s new Director of Communications, Dave Hill agreed. “The leadership issue was never anything but settled,” he told me. “It's simply not a question.”

    Spin doctoring

    Hill, who replaced the notorious spin doctor Alistair Campbell, has been associated with pushing Blair to focus more on local issues, after the embarrassing foreign adventure in Iraq.

    Notably, Blair’s only new promise in his speech was “the biggest policy consultation ever to have taken place in this country. [With] the ministers from me down, our MPs out in every constituency hosting discussions that engage the whole community.”

    Hill fleshed out the skeleton a bit more. “The new consultation document still has to be finalised,” he said.

    “But it will focus on public services, crime and other domestic issues because that’s the agenda that is important to the party and more importantly, to the people of this country.”

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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