The Sketch: Labour Party Conference: Master of the Labour hounds asks them to follow common scents

AS PHOTOGRAPHS of Labour's historic landmarks were flashed on to the podium backdrop and Fatboy Slim sang "We've come a long, long way", delegates began to clap along obediently, a reflexive rhythm section that half-concealed the truly important lyric, the one that was intended to wedge itself irretrievably in their frontal lobes: "I have to praise him like I should."

Mr Blair was about to address the not-entirely faithful and the party managers were happy to use anything, including subliminal suggestion, to nudge the clapometer up from respect to rapture. The delegates had no difficulty carrying out their duty at the beginning; Mr Blair looked a bit bashful about the applause and cheering that greeted his arrival and then ad-libbed with an intimate ease. "I can tell you this, there's never been a safer day for British foxes", he said, referring to the Countryside Alliance protest outside the hall, and delegates gave him an unforced laugh.

They liked his implicit promise not to wobble on the fox-hunting ban too, and Mr Blair used the sense of them and us generated by the encirclement of the conference hall to evoke a glow of solidarity he would later need to draw on. "Today's Tory party", he said contemptuously, "the party of fox-hunting, Pinochet and hereditary peers: the uneatable, the unspeakable and the unelectable." That was the easy stuff but Mr Blair made some much harder choices to make too.

His speech did not touch delegates as Gordon Brown's had done on Monday, but that was because it was less respectful of the collective nostalgia of the party, more determined to make it think about what, exactly, it had become. Mr Blair acknowledged the sense of disappointment felt by some, beginning with the Government's failures, not its achievements (though lingering considerably longer on the latter than the former). But, after a long opening section, in which he redefined the political battle of the next century as being between progressives and conservatives, rather than capitalism and socialism, he turned the Tory-bashing inwards. The enemy was within, he might have said - those forces of reaction who dug in for Clause Four and against linking welfare to work.

Earlier he had paid a passing homage to Neil Kinnock, parodying his famous anti-Militant speech made in the same hall in 1985; back then the accused howled back defiantly at their accuser - this time they took the rebuke in silence.

He offered them some sweeties for their forbearance: 16 to 18-year- olds who stayed at school would get cut-price deals at shops, theatres and cinemas, a potent incentive to skip school once you'd made sure that you'd got your smart card signed by the teacher. More substantially, he promised that within two years everyone would again be able to see an NHS dentist "just by phoning NHS Direct". This sounded a bit odd. Telephone dentistry? Would the pledge be met by talking patients through do-it-yourself extractions? Delegates didn't much care about the small print - the discoloured smile of cradle-to-grave health care was about to be given a polish and they were thrilled.

Shortly afterwards Mr Blair - the moralist with an unembarrassed passion for rules and order - showed his own teeth; it was time to move beyond "libertarian nonsense masquerading as freedom", he said scornfully. He had accused some of the delegates present of being left-wing conservatives and now he gave them the conservative law-and-order speech, complete with pledges on DNA databases and no compromise on drugs - "the most chilling, evil industry our modern world has to confront".

"I just hope it's like that at the end," Mr Blair had murmured after he was greeted at the podium by an ovation. It was, of course, but some of the warmth and anticipation had been replaced by something more like resigned admiration. The leader was not for turning; indeed he was already halfway over the horizon, beckoning for the party to advance. They really had no option but to follow him.