Labour Conference: The Sketch - Echoes of Thatcher as the gentleman is not for turning

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ALL THAT was missing was a blond wig and a handbag.

The Prime Minister stormed through a speech - with Margaret Thatcher probably watching on television, turning to Denis and saying: "He really is one of us."

I was transported back, momentarily, to a speech delivered to a Conservative conference at exactly the same point into the then Mrs Thatcher's government - 17 months after her election.

The manufacturing industry was slowing down, jobs were being lost and exports were becoming increasingly difficult. "Wets" and other siren voices were urging a change of economic policy. Her famous line: "The lady's not for turning" was implicitly restated by Mr Blair yesterday as: Tony's not for turning.

Of course the language was slightly different. We did not have any "No Turning Back" but we did have "No Backing Down", powered out with emphasis no less than four times.

Compare the two speeches, 18 years apart: "No policy which puts at risk the defeat of inflation -- however great its short-term attraction - can be right." (MT). "So we have set a tough inflation target. We will meet it. There will be no backing down." (TB).

There is no doubt that TINA (there is no alternative) is back with a vengeance.

The build up to the speech was worthy of any American presidential convention. Only the balloons were missing. Delegates hung from the chandeliers, swung from the balconies and stood in the wings.

A dramatic video presentation with music got them in the mood before the chairman announced our hero's entrance.

Suddenly he was there; our Tony: tall, radiant, looking good, oozing confidence and smiling his great smile.

A hushed hall heard and saw him dazzle and sparkle and he got straight into his stride - standing with one foot 18 inches in front of the other, gripping the lectern as firmly as his party. Many in the audience may well have been bemused and still find his challenge to modernise sticks in their throats. A few did not applaud in the early stages but he is a powerful speaker and knows how to use his soft and loud pedals to advantage over his audience. He can slow the pace, speed up, sound alternatively authoritative and similarly confidential without shouting.

This melts all but the sternest of critics and by the end he had the hall eating out of his hand.

Half way through he mentioned Mo Mowlam. The hall went wild, stood, bellowed and clapped until their hands were red raw. He departed from his text. "That's the first standing ovation in the middle of a speech for a person who is not even making a speech". But Mr Blair knew in advance that this interruption would give the audience an opportunity to shuffle their backsides and get comfortable again.

Mr Blair claimed to be different from his Tory predecessors but it looked like window dressing. He chucked a few scraps of minced gristle onto the conference floor, such as the abolition of hereditary peers. But, even here, Baroness Thatcher will chuckle approvingly. She had more than her share of run-ins with grandees in the Lords and will not be sorry to see some of them get their come-uppance.

The only note of possible trouble came when our leader restated the support for family values. After the debacle of the John Major "back to basics" this was brave, and he pointedly coupled this with an appeal to the media not to go a-scandal-hunting.

He built on Gordon Brown's theme of "challenge" with no fewer than 18 references ending with "we rise to the challenge together".

He summoned Cherie, and John and Pauline Prescott, and milked the moment with his arm round his wife. The Prime Minister left the hall basking in glory to face down any challenge from the faint hearts in the Labour Party.