Blair scores a hit as prime minister in waiting

The party seemed prepared to trust Blair's subliminal message that he would be a far more radical PM than he appears
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The Independent Online
Tony Blair repaid his debt to the Labour Party in his conference address at Blackpool yesterday. It's conventional to say that the leader's speech is directed not at the audience in the hall but through the television cameras to the wider public beyond.

And, of course, that's the imperative. But as Blair recognised yesterday, the party matters, too.

The brilliance of the speech was that - faced with the familiar dilemma of whether to massage the party or to appeal directly to the voters in Middle England - he did both. It was not just gratitude, although he certainly owes much to his party. He also knows the party is the only instrument he has to make victory certain. To maximise the effort by every delegate to knock on millions of doors in council estates and villages and suburbs and get the vote out, he had to overcome their latent anxieties about what he would do with power.

Largely, he succeeded. The party understands, better perhaps than some of the floating voters it has to win over, that he cannot spell out to them everything he wants to do without the risk of blowing the election. And after yesterday they seemed prepared to trust his subliminal message that he would be a far more radical prime minister than he appears at present.

Blair did not kowtow to party members; but his message to them was that he knows that their trust - first in electing him, then in allowing him to transform the party - has now put him within reach of being prime minister. It was there in the repeated references to the victories of 1945 and 1964, while much of what Blair has written suggests that he regards Asquith's victory in 1906 as a more congenial parallel. It was there in the homage to the Labour campaigners against Apartheid. It was there in the lavish praise for John Prescott and Robin Cook. And it was there in his affecting reference to Jack Jones' heroism as an International Brigade volunteer on the Ebro during the Spanish Civil War.

This last perhaps is especially appropriate: to many of the younger Blairites, Jack Jones represents the most Jurassic elements of old Labour. They forget that he spent two long years trying to sustain a creaking Labour government's counter-inflation policy in the mid-Seventies and that he wants a Blair victory as much as they do. The straightest of men, Jones has striven to reach an accord on pensions that would head off a damaging split today. And it was there, above all, in the pointed recognition that "this party only survived for new members to join because the old members stuck with it through thick and thin".

The fact that Blair was also able to appeal to the aspiring C2 voter, polishing his Ford Sierra - whom Thatcher stole from Labour in 1979 - was sweetened even for the most uncertain delegates by the thrill of approaching power. For Blair played the part of prime minister for the day, rehearsing the role that every member of his audience is now sure he will be playing for real in seven months' time. Promising anti-sleaze laws, announcing his performance contract for Britain and, above all, announcing that he would open immediate negotiations with European governments about how he would handle the British EU Presidency in 1998, he was the PM in waiting. At one point he even referred by mistake to "the Labour government today". If this was hubris, the conference loved it.

There was also something prime ministerial about what was in a curious way the central, winning, moment of the speech. There was no stunning news to match his decision to replace Clause IV in 1994. He didn't, wisely, attempt to repeat the headline announcement he made last year that BT had agreed to wire up schools - an announcement that became more confusing the more you looked at it. Holding the ring between a shadow chancellor who wants to maximise the chances of joining EMU, and a shadow foreign secretary who is deeply sceptical, he gave nothing away on the single currency.

But he made the commitment to ban handguns in the wake of Dunblane sound like an executive decision. It isn't new. We know that the ban is Labour policy. But the conference loved it. And not just because it provided the affecting moment of passion from a man who seldom shows it in public. It's possible that John Major will next week announce immediate action on the issue. Like all the best ideas, it is so stunningly obvious that it is hard to believe that a few mulish Tory MPs on the Home Affairs Committee got their party into such a muddle that Mr Major hasn't acted already. But nothing could better dramatise Labour as the party of the majority. Ordinary people across the whole spectrum of political opinion - the handgun lobby excepted - from Bennites to the law-and-order right want the ban.

But he also recognises that the alarms and excursions over the summer, from Clare Short to Roy Hattersley, were more than just undisciplined. They tapped into a real unease about the party's uncompromising appeal to the undecided voter. Blair didn't agonise at all about including in his speech highly personal references to the painful lessons of his father's stroke. But he agonised long and hard about whether to include mentioning attending the funeral of that old Labour stalwart Sam McCluskie. The story was a paradigm, in a way, of Blair's relationship with his party.

"We didn't always see eye to eye," he told the conference yesterday. But they had both wanted the same thing--a better world. Blair persuaded his party - at least until polling day- that while they may not all see eye to eye, they do all want the same thing.