Labour Conference: Brighton Sketch: The Great Masseur flexes his fingertips

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The Independent Online
On Monday night the young woman sitting in front of me at a slightly tedious fringe meeting began to massage her boyfriend's neck. This was no momentary affectionate stroke; it was the full Monty. She slipped her fingers under his collar and kneaded the soft flesh, moved her hand up to the back of his crown and - with her right thumb - vigorously rubbed his number-four crop, dropped back down to his nape and squeezed rhythmically, till the skin reddened. And then stroked again.

When - at last - she stopped, her previously wilting companion was feeling much, much better. He had had the tough but tender treatment; compassion with a hard edge.

Imagine this trick now repeated on an epic scale. For yesterday at just after 2.30pm, Mr Blair - the Great Masseur - entered the hall in Brighton to some rousing organ music (and, indeed, I dare say that many organs were roused by it). In essence, the Prime Minister's task was the same as my anonymous young lady's, to give pleasure and pain in the right quantities, in order to benefit the whole.

Broadly, then, he required the same two basic techniques. And - on mounting the podium - he deployed them both. First came the delicious fluttering of executive fingertips around the errogenous zones of his party and the country. So, there was a new target of two billion smackers to be spent on school buildings - 700 million more than before (tickle, tickle). There would be half a million extra students in higher education by 2002 (caress). And - more generally - he would not rest until we had a Britain in which "no child goes hungry, the young are employed and the old are cherished and valued until the end of their days" (at which point an old lady in the gallery shouted "Hear, hear" so emphatically that she nearly expired. Cherished and valued, naturally).

But in between the nice, squirmy bits, there was the hard kneading to be done - or, as he put it (to a little shiver of anticipation in the hall): "A strong society cannot be built on soft choices."

Any moment we would feel the PM's thumbs dig painfully into our flabby psyches, determinedly manipulating the muscles and fat right down to the bone. To get to Nirvana we'd have to suffer, surely?

And he did tell us that the welfare state would have to be "fundamentally reformed", that it must "encourage work not dependency". But, abruptly, the thumbs retreated, and moved on to another part of the body politic. Housing benefit "has to change". The thumbs had shifted again. Then, the NHS "needs modernisation." Oh yes! This was an area, like the buttocks, that needed some real work. But, once more, he'd moved on.

Finally, for a few moments the Great Masseur stroked some of his own aching joints and tender parts. He rubbed his pluralist maximus, referring to the need for a radical realignment in politics, redefined his Britain, and, above all, brandished his beacon to the world.

In fact, "beacons" were mentioned many times. The trouble is that most young people have never heard of beacons. They have, however, drunk their juice from beakers, and are even now asking their parents why that nice Mr Blair wants Britain to be a "a beaker for the 21st Century".

But that is a quibble. In this touchy-feely Dianic era, the Great Masseur, with his "make this the giving age" did well. Next time, though, he'll have to use a bit more of the thumb. Like Ms X's boyfriend, we need to feel the pain.