Labour Conference: Confident leader challenges Britain

WELCOME TO government. Tony Blair quoted the New York Democrat Mario Cuomo's sobering remark that "we campaign in poetry but we govern in prose". Yet oddly, it was the least prosaic and most skilfully crafted of all the speeches he has made since becoming leader. The standing ovation in mid-speech for "our very own" Mo Mowlam's stewardship of Northern Ireland was a moment of pure theatre, the most emotion he has ever allowed his party to enjoy at a party conference. It was also his most supremely self- confident performance.

Who said this was a Prime Minister frightened of giving offence? He had tough messages for bad teachers, absent fathers, anti-social neighbours. He warned the party to brace itself for the short term unpopularity that will attend welfare reform. His ringing reaffirmation that that there is no alternative macro-economic policy was a brutal rebuff to the union leaders and party critics who think otherwise. His stark lesson on the power of international capitalism's "permanent revolution" was an answer to the intellectuals who say that globalism is dead. He was uncompromisingly dismissive of businessmen who blame their uncompetitiveness on an independent Bank of England rather than their own underperformance. He challenged the media's unhealthy interest in politicians' private lives. And he put the middle-class professionals in hospitals and schools on notice that they are about to undergo a painful period of change.

Chauvinism in all its forms was also in his sights. He is now fired up for the biggest political struggle of next year, the elections to the Scottish Parliament. He has always been a more ardent unionist than he was a devolutionist. But it looks as though he has now persuaded himself that home rule was indeed the only way of saving the Union, and his withering condemnation of little Scotlandism gave a hint of what Alex Salmond's SNP will be in for next spring. Beside this he made Commons reform sound - ominously for the Liberal Democrats - a distant, second order, issue. There was an element of playing to the gallery here. Deep opposition to electoral reform has still to be deflected in Blackpool this week. But it will make those around Ashdown distinctly nervous.

Deftly he coupled his attack on British balkanism with a resounding reaffirmation of his own Europeanism; at least as resounding as is possible while Britain stays out of EMU. Some of those around Blair are now hopeful that the SPD's victory in Bonn will finally let London realise its dream of breaking into the Franco-German axis. Whether that is over-optimistic, Blair was as unequivocal as he has been to a domestic audience about the benefits to Britain of a successful Euro.

But while many of his messages to the party were tough, the British left, in the widest sense, should be reassured by the way he has started to draw the ideological dividing lines. He denounced the notion that the Tories could have done what Labour has done, from union rights to the minimum wage, from the extra billions for health and education to a rise in overseas aid. He dispelled doubts that the Government is prepared to challenge the private motorist by allowing John Prescott his radical transport Bill. He drew a devastating contrast between the isolationism of the British right and the modernised internationalism of the centre left. The speech was an exposition of what the third way means in practice.

Tony Benn once said that Margaret Thatcher's great strength was to be a teacher-politician. It hasn't always been clear whether Tony Blair had the same gift, but after yesterday it looks as if he has.

Part of the lesson was that if the dividing line between centre left and right isn't one most of his party yet recognises, it still exists, and - whisper it softly - he is on the same side of it as the left is.

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