Labour conference: Blair pays tribute to party progress

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A hint of more money for the NHS was given by Tony Blair yesterday, at the end of his first party conference as Prime Minister. Anthony Bevins, political editor, witnessed a barnstorming end to the week

A rip-roaring speech from John Prescott, a fist-raising rendition of the "Red Flag" and a cool assessment by the Prime Minister ended the Labour Party conference yesterday.

After a week in which the leadership again suffered no defeats at the hands of its activists, the Tony Blair recognised that some party members were still clinging to the "old tunes", like renationalisation of the railways.

"I think there are some old tunes that get everyone going," he said in a BBC interview. "But I think what is interesting is that people know they're old tunes and no one really believes, in this day and age, that we should go back to the ways of the past."

Nevertheless, he clearly sought to reassure party and public that he would do all in his power to avert winter crisis in the hospitals, saying that a close watch was being kept on the situation.

"I am not going to get into the position of announcing new sums of money," he said, "but we are putting in, of course, an additional pounds 1bn over and above the Conservatives' spending plans next year, and we're watching very closely the situation this year."

The Prime Minister confirmed that he was considering setting up a judicial inquiry into the introduction of BSE into cattle and the human food chain. "I don't think it is right for me to comment until we make the final decision, but it has been the most appalling problem," he said.

In his wind-up, the Deputy Prime Minister ridiculed the Tories and their new leader, saying that when they went to Blackpool next week, Conservative representatives would be getting the result of their one-member, many- votes ballot for one leader - "Just William".

"William is running against nobody," Mr Prescott said. "It could be quite a close thing. But either way, let's face it, a nobody is bound to win."

He also said that the Tory party was rather like a "wonky supermarket trolley - it pulls to the left, it pulls to the right, but you just can't get it to go forward."

Mr Prescott said Labour and the country should never forget what the Conservatives had done.

But he added: "Now that we've won that famous victory, the most important thing is always to stay true to the people we represent, to deliver on our promises to the electorate."

He said the Government could win the essential, second, five-year term of office to complete its task if it carried on modernising and facing up to tough decisions.

"This is about the hard choices of government, not merely the easy words of opposition," he warned.

A further revelation about John Major's style of government has been delivered by Chris Patten, the former governor of Hong Kong, who says in an interview on Channel 4's Bye Bye Blues tomorrow night, that after he had sent him out to the colony, Mr Major occasionally asked him to give up the job and come back - even though he was engaged in negotiating the this year's critical handover to the Chinese.

"It was raised with me on one or two occasions by him and by others," Mr Patten says. "I think he would have liked it if I had been around to take some of the heat and the pressure off him."

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