Labour Party Conference: Best Chancellor Thatcher never had

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BACKSTAGE MANAGERS left nothing to chance in their attempts to make sure that it was Gordon Brown's day at the conference yesterday. As he took the rostrum, to a musical fanfare, two subliminal images were flashed on to the backdrop. First, a black and white shot of Denis Healey holding his budget box aloft, reminded delegates of the past failures of Old Labour's tax and spend policies. Second, a colour shot showed a confident and relaxed Mr Brown, jacket off, at his desk. The images reinforced how changed the circumstances are for today's Chancellor addressing the conference.

Once, Mr Healey was unable to attend an International Monetary Fund meeting of finance ministers because of a financial crisis and had to turn back from Heathrow airport to return to London. He was subsequently forced to speak to an angry conference mob where he was heckled and shouted down. By comparison, Mr Brown gloried in reporting that he had been abroad, until yesterday, where he was garlanded with international praise at the equivalent IMF meeting.

Redistributive and taxing by stealth may be legitimate Tory charges but, in technical management terms, Mr Brown must be the best Chancellor Margaret Thatcher never had.

FOR REAL passion and debate the speech by Dennis Skinner, at the anti- proportional representation fringe meeting, raised the roof and put paid to any lingering hopes by the supporters of PR that there will ever be a referendum on the issue. Several hundred delegates jammed the hall to hear Mr Skinner, back triumphantly on the NEC, denounce "Woy of the Wadicals Jenkins".

Mr Skinner revealed the extent of his own influence on Tony Blair and most agree that he has already bought time for defenders of first-past- the-post. Mr Skinner said: "I'm working on him and I think I've got it sorted." The most powerful argument deployed by Mr Skinner to the Prime Minister was when he told him: "I've got a bigger vote in Bolsover than you have in Sedgefield." If it ever came to sharing out "top-up" seats, Mr Skinner said he would be ahead of Mr Blair on the Labour list.

THE DEBATE on the Government's plans to privatise the Air Traffic Control system looks to be the only occasion where the platform may be embarrassed this week. With the trade unions making most of the running, the former transport minister Gavin Strang is expected to join the growing revolt. Mr Strang spoke critically of the proposal before the recess but his opposition is seen as a double- edged sword by other rebels. It turns out that only weeks before he was sacked by Tony Blair, in 1998, he was happily defending similar privatisation proposals in the Commons.

DONALD DEWAR, speaking to the conference yesterday in his new capacity as First Minister for Scotland, is in heavy demand on the drinks party reception circuit.

Minders have been hoping that he mugs up on his small-talk skills after a recent hiccup when he met a man with bleached blond hair. "What do you do?" asked Dewar.

"I'm a driver," came the reply. "Are you a lorry driver or a train driver?" "No, I'm a car driver," responded Jacques Villeneuve.