A speech that touched the right spots but crucially failed to resolve the issue of Iraq

There was nothing to provide comfort that when next asked to join a military adventure Blair will say no

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It was a speech that demonstrated a fundamental truth of the political landscape. Tony Blair is the most impressive communicator of this generation. He is a master of the art of varying the pitch of a speech to retain the attention of an audience. Alternately he is urging them on through the sheer force of his convict-ion to accept his argument, or disarming their resistance to it by his charm and self-deprecating wit. Ten points for artistic interpretation.

It was a speech that demonstrated a fundamental truth of the political landscape. Tony Blair is the most impressive communicator of this generation. He is a master of the art of varying the pitch of a speech to retain the attention of an audience. Alternately he is urging them on through the sheer force of his convict-ion to accept his argument, or disarming their resistance to it by his charm and self-deprecating wit. Ten points for artistic interpretation.

The content also showed an understanding of the unrest in the Labour tribe. Tony's historic achievement has been to construct an electoral coalition of support for Labour between the aspirant Daily Mail reading classes and its traditional working-class citadels. He has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of previous Labour leaders in reaching out to the new, growing middle classes and convincing them that it was not only safe but smart to vote Labour. In an era when half the population describes itself as middle class, turning the Labour Party into a natural home for them is a condition of electoral success.

But retaining the support of Labour's core voters is also a condition of victory and it is the traditional Labour vote that has been showing signs of strain in its loyalty. A poll this week revealed that Labour voters regard their party as well to the right of themselves, and even further to the right than they placed it last year. Even more alarming was the discovery that three out of four Labour voters now regard it as, "a party for the middle class and business".

Yesterday's speech demonstrated that Tony Blair is aware of this threat to his electoral base. His 10-point plan for the third term was heavy in commitment to working-class families. The examples with which he illustrated his speech of his visits around Britain were exclusively of areas of social regeneration. Even his language was rich in the vocabulary of social justice - fairness, justice, solidarity. When I drafted my mission statement for the Foreign Office in the heyday of New Labour, the very word "solidarity" was excised by Downing Street and it was good to hear it is now back in the lexicon of approved vocabulary.

This had been a more restive conference than any of those Tony Blair has addressed as Prime Minister. The platform has been defeated twice on issues where the floor has asserted long-standing Labour instincts - public ownership of the railways and an end to the ludicrous bias against council tenants who can obtain government funds only if they vote to cease to be council tenants. These rebellions on individual issues are prompted by a broader concern that the leadership is taking the party on a forced march in a direction with which it is unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

I discovered a sympathetic resonance among the audience at the Independent fringe meeting when I confessed to feeling dismay whenever I hear a leading figure deploy the "radical" word, as I have come to learn that I will not much like the policy that follows. Too often radical is used to describe policies that are a rejection of the values and ethos which Labour has upheld for generations, - such as free access to higher education. Tony Blair's speech showed a new sensitivity to the lack of appetite for any more "radical" departures from Labour principles. There was nothing in his 10 priorities that required the party faithful to stand on their heads, jump through hoops, or perform other gymnastics to square their leader's policies with their own beliefs.

In that sense the speech could even be interpreted as closing some of the alarming gap the Blairites opened up on the Brownites at the time of the reshuffle. Much of its content is easier to reconcile with Gordon Brown's wish to build on our advances in social justice than to square with Alan Milburn's ambition for a Bold Move Forward.

But Labour's tragedy is that its domestic programme can only be dimly perceived through the deep gloom cast by the continuing debacle of Iraq. Tony Blair conceded that his decision to join Bush in the invasion of Iraq had precipitated the crisis of trust which now hobbles his credibility.

Yesterday he announced that he was going to deal with the issue head on. That promise was encouraging. However, the extended passage that followed did not concede there had been any mistake other than duff intelligence nor any lesson other than the need to get the right information next time. There was no hint that it might have been better to let the UN finish the job so that Hans Blix could have proved our intelligence was wrong before we went to war on the strength of it.

Tony Blair's latest justification for the war is that Iraq is the site of an epic struggle with international terrorism. In Brighton he even advanced the proposition that the terrorists "have chosen Iraq as the battle ground". Pardon? It was we who chose Iraq as a battle ground and we did so at a time when there were no international terrorists to be found in the country. It was we who created the conditions in which al-Qa'ida thrives inside Iraq and uses our operations against Iraqis for its recruiting propaganda around the world.

The problem for Tony Blair is that if he insists that we judge his invasion of Iraq by its contribution to defeating terrorism, the only rational verdict is that he has made matters much worse rather than any better.

Tony Blair's announcement that he will give personal priority to peace in the Middle East is also encouraging and received the warmest spontaneous award for any passage in his speech. Yet even here Tony Blair made progress dependent on his alliance with America.

I have no illusions about the immense challenge of compelling the Sharon government into engaging in the peace process without American pressure, but equally, Tony Blair by now ought to have no illusions that George Bush regards Sharon as a protégé rather than a problem.

The most unrealistic moment in the speech was when he wistfully hoped that, "Europe and America could put aside their differences". There is not the slightest sign that, if he is re-elected, George Bush will share that hope other than requiring from the rest of Europe loyalty as great as he has been given by Tony Blair. At some point Tony will have to face the decision he has resisted too long and choose Europe.

In the meantime there was nothing in this affirmation of the Transatlantic Alliance to provide comfort that when next asked by the White House to join a military adventure he will say no. This is not merely an academic question. The same neo-conservatives who thought up the conquest of Iraq are already lobbying for the same strategy to be visited on Iran. If Tony Blair wants to win back the millions of voters who opposed the last war he needs to find soon the opportunity of a further speech to reassure them that they will not be another one.

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