An impatient leader fast outgrowing his party

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So seamless has been Tony Blair's transition from Labour to national leader, that this was hardly a party speech at all. He came to the rostrum yesterday impatient and just a little irritated about what had gone before. This had less to do with the humbling of Peter Mandelson than with what he had detected as a creeping sense of relaxation among the faithful. You could tell on Monday morning, just by watching his face, that he hadn't much liked the elements of triumphalist revelling in the speeches of Robin Cook and John Prescott. Whatever he had thought of their approach, he didn't repeat the reworked commitment to "full employment" in Gordon Brown's speech.

Indeed, Blair made not a vestige of an attempt to wrap up his modernising message in old Labour language. Even the gracious tribute to Michael Foot was merely designed to point out how a decent and long suffering man had presided over a party which had been reduced to nothing more than a rabble on the brink of self-destruction. Indeed, he scarcely bothered to mention the Tories, other than to warn that they were not "dead but only sleeping", and that complacency remained the party's great enemy. It's as if the election were now a distant memory, celebration of which is a mere distraction from the urgent task of doing to his country what he has already done to the party.

And, in communicating that vision, Blair succeeded handsomely. True, he did not linger on the details of the "tough choices" the party would face in order to realise its ideals. But it isn't hard to see the kind of thing he is pointing to. The decision to impose tuition fees for students is the first, or at least the biggest and boldest, lifting of a popular taboo in order to redirect funds to the most pressing priorities, education, health and the barriers between a prosperous majority and a workless, hopeless underclass. Whether on welfare reform, on the use of private money to strengthen the NHS's ability to provide universal care, or on new ways of organising schools, there will be a lot more taboo-breaking to come.

The vision Blair presented was a Labour one of a compassionate, socially inclusive Britain. The price he exacted was that traditional Labour institutions will no longer be assumed to be the vehicles for achieving it. He also invited, more starkly than ever, his party to take him as he is, confident that it has no other choice.

The Prime Minister knows that when he says bluntly there is no threat to civil liberty as potent as that of the fear of "women afraid to go out, and pensioners afraid to stay at home", the message resonates with all but the least honest of his own MPs. This is populist, but not merely in the Daily Mail-wooing, Middle England sense; it's on the big working- class council estates in the Labour heartlands that the fear is most palpable. However, Labour's leader also knows that when he stresses that every policy will be monitored for its capacity to strengthen the family, there are many in his party, ministers included, who wince at what they fear is his social authoritarianism. Well, that's what he believes in; the pointlessness to him of baby-boomer Sixties libertarianism may perhaps be one reason why it sometimes seems as if it's the twenty and thirty-somethings, and the over-sixties to whom he has the deepest emotional appeal.

Rightly, Blair decided at the 11th hour to excise a peroration which dwelt on the public mourning for Princess Diana. But the national unity, and desire for modernisation, which he conjured for the future, was similar to that which he believes attended the Princess's death.

Here and there at Brighton, on the fringes and even on the floor, the old Labour Adam twitches briefly into life. It subscribes to a heresy - that because Labour won so resoundingly, perhaps the party didn't need to modernise so much. Absolutely dismissive of this canard, Blair warned that what the people have given, they can take away. Labour, as he pointed out, has never once won two full terms. It's a message that steels the party against relaxation. But it also reminds the faithful subliminally that he is already the most popular peacetime national leader of the century.

The conference vote to transform itself from next year into something much less capable of embarrassing the Labour leadership was massive and final. And it's true that the vote against Peter Mandelson was in large part personal. Mandelson will remain as closely as ever at Blair's right hand. Indeed the defeat was probably good for Mandelson and perhaps even better for the party since it punctures the myth of Mandelsonian omnipotence under which it had previously laboured. Nevertheless politics played a part too: the left did a little better than even it had expected. Last night the Blairite cadres were still working fiercely to ensure defeats today for the platform on rail privatisation and pensions.

But in a sense these issues scarcely matter. The biggest cheers in the speech were for two radical, liberal goals, dear to Labour's heart but in pursuit of which Labour not only has no monopoly but about which it has been traditionally hesitant: reform of an undemocratic House of Lords and the creation of a truly multi-ethnic Britain. Applause for these policies was, of course, utterly in tune with Blair's unrepentant affirmation that he wants to reunite with British Liberalism. Labour as we know it, he is saying, is a party that came in at the beginning of the century and may go out with it. The radical centre left he wants is as much that of Beveridge, Keynes and Lloyd George as that of Bevin, Bevan and Attlee. Listening to all this, some of his audience in the hall no doubt winced. But his vision is now indelibly linked to his twin aims of modernisation and justice; a centre and left that will not break up as the 1906 coalition did.

And those in the party who don't like Tony Blair's long-term goal must now fear that he is outgrowing his party. Just as he appealed over the heads of the activists to the wider party membership to win the Labour leadership, so he now has the people as well as the party.

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