Party managers try to block debate on Iraq

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Indy Politics

"Don't mention the war" will be one of the big themes of Labour's annual conference this week, if party managers are able to keep control of rebellious delegates.

The committee that controls the conference agenda will decide today whether to allow a vote on Iraq, or block it on the grounds that it is not "contemporary".

A large number of constituency Labour Parties have called for a chance to vote on whether Tony Blair was right to take the UK to war - a vote the Prime Minister would probably lose.

But even if they decide to allow an Iraq debate, the Conference Arrangements Committee is likely to table a resolution that will ignore what happened in March, referring only to the need to rebuild Iraq and end the violence there, to minimise any embarrassment it might cause the Government.

Meanwhile, Mr Blair's speech on Tuesday, in which the party leader normally gives a summary of the big political issues of the day, will make no reference to the death of Dr David Kelly or the Hutton inquiry, which has dominated the news all summer.

"He [Mr Blair] will not speak on that subject because it is a matter for the judge, and he is not going to comment at all on the Hutton inquiry beyond what he said about it when he himself participated," Mr Blair's director of communications stressed yesterday.

He added: "The Prime Minister will say he still believes it was right to do what he did and it was right to take the action that was taken, and now the important thing is to move towards improvement in Iraq and improvement of security in Iraq."

While the tone of Mr Blair's speech will be conciliatory, there will be little comfort for his critics. His director of communications made it clear: "There must be greater consultation, taking people with you more and making sure that they understand why changes need to be made. At the same time, we will not be backing off the fact that there are hard choices to be made."

Outlining four key themes for the week ahead, the party chairman, Ian McCartney, said the leadership aimed to ensure that it was "in touch with implementing our values", and all policies would be judged by a fairness test.

In addition, Mr Blair and his senior lieutenants want to "recapture the campaigning zeal" of party members and give the party more of a chance to be consulted on the policy decisions and direction of the Government.

The rather defensive approach of the leadership comes after several polls and surveys yesterday, which called into question the continued enthusiasm among Labour's grassroots and the public for a Government led by Mr Blair.

A Mori poll for the Financial Times found that half the public thought that Mr Blair should step down, as their trust in him appeared to be fading following the Iraq war.

Though the Labour Party would still win an election with a nine-point lead over the Tories if a general election were fought with Mr Blair in charge, that rose to 15 points when people were asked how they would vote were Chancellor Gordon Brown the Labour leader.

A YouGov poll for The Daily Telegraph put the Tories on 32 per cent of the vote (down five on last month), Labour on 31 per cent (down four) and the Liberal Democrats on 30 per cent (up 10).

The Prime Minister's director of communications dismissed the idea that the polls spelt gloomy news for Mr Blair's leadership.

"Mori said we are six-and-a-half years into a Labour government and the Labour government has a nine per cent lead. In that sense, it is a bizarre discussion to say that there is some serious doubt over the leadership and the future leadership of the Prime Minister who at the moment has that sort of lead.

"Although there is a lot of dissent out there, there is still palpably a wish for the Prime Minister and this Government to succeed."

Challenged that the conference appeared to be defensive in tone, he said, "low key and lacklustre are not the words that I would use".