Labour Conference: The Sketch - Business as usual at Tony's side- show

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The Independent Online
A FEW days ago I received a pass to hang round my neck which appeared to come from the Somerfield supermarket chain. The words on it urged me to "see us on Stand 2".

I phoned them up to ask where Stand 2 was. Go to the Winter Gardens in Blackpool, they told me. So yesterday, wearing the pass, I arrived at Stand 2 to hear a speech by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, to open what I thought was a huge trade fair celebrating the excesses of the free market. A veritable feast of global, multi-national representatives of capitalism were on display, with every privatised company showing off its wares. Dozens of stands were staffed by sharp-suited public relations executives handing out invitations to free receptions. After traipsing round for half an hour I needed a sit-down.

The Somerfield people told me if I turned the pass over it would reveal the words "Labour Party" and entitle me to attend a side-show to the trade fair which was called a party conference and was just getting underway in the ballroom.

Delegates have complained about the Somerfield stunt. The Co-op stand has offered to replace the back of any pass held by delegates who object to the Somerfield advertisement. They can replace the neck chain with an emblem carrying a trade union slogan.

With all this sponsorship I half-expected to see a back-drop entitled "The Labour Government - sponsored by Rupert Murdoch" but there was no sign of the media tycoon.

Mr Murdoch's favourite son, Tony Blair, was, however, in attendance and preparing to avoid answering difficult questions from the delegates.

The Prime Minister was forced to sit mute, on the platform, for over an hour while the opening ceremony and general mumbo-jumbo of the administrative arrangements threatened momentarily to overshadow his big event.

Various warm-up acts, including the conference chairman and party general secretary, were the prelude for Industry minister, Ian McCartney, the Labour Party court jester, to soften up the delegates so they wouldn't cause Mr Blair too much hassle.

A minor irritant was the announcement that four trouble-makers, including left-winger Liz Davies, had been elected to the National Executive Committee. The normally house-trained delegates momentarily forgot themselves and there was a few seconds of applause. Fortunately, they noticed that the Prime Minister looked irritated and was not clapping. So they stopped immediately. New Labour, new discipline, seems to be working.

Finally, the platform party disappeared and the set was changed. A couple of chairs, a glass coffee table and bowl of red roses were brought on. Mo Mowlam, the Saint of Northern Ireland and Labour Party universal aunt, acted as Des O'Connor. Tony threw off his jacket to indicate intimacy. Questioners were chosen at random which was brave on the part of the conference fixers. On the other hand, anyone fool enough to ask a tricky number would simply be purged.

The Prime Minister was asked more or less the sort of questions posed at a local constituency party meeting and found no difficulty in coping. Examples such as redundancies and "What are you going to do for the ward I represent in the West Midlands?" were typical and he responded in generalities, flagging up as many national policy achievements as he could.

It was an easy Sunday afternoon ride for Mr Blair. His informal manner and easy listening disc jockey style meant that the experiment in limited party democracy was a success. These delegates are still celebrating last year's victory and still cannot quite believe they are really in charge of Britain. They will applaud anything from Tony and it is unlikely he will have much trouble from the delegates this week.