Alan Watkins: I had just a twinge of sympathy for Mr Blair

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The Independent Online

Visiting the doctor's surgery a few days ago - nothing serious - I had got through my Independent and was looking morosely at the several posters which adorned the walls. One of them was headed: "TB is not Taboo." Just so, I mused, just so. How like, how very like, our own dear Labour Party. There Mr Tony Blair - or, as we now know from Lord Hutton's inquiry he is called in the upper reaches of government, "TB" - is not taboo either. On the contrary: he is still the popular favourite.

And yet, before last week, we were earnestly assured on all sides that this happy position was no longer his. The comrades from the constituencies and the brothers from the branches were equally disturbed. At Bournemouth, we were told, he would be proffered the frozen mitt and denied the big hello. Never glad confident morning again! But it did not turn out to be like this at all. Indeed, the young war criminal was given a standing ovation before he had even opened his mouth, which seemed to provide him with genuine pleasure and surprise.

It is said that this agreeable atmosphere was the result of careful stage-management in which the new "party chairman", the incomprehensible Scot Mr Ian McCartney, had played a notable part. In particular, it was the result of the omission to hold a vote on Iraq. And no doubt Mr McCartney went in expertly and enthusiastically for those dark practices which are usual on these occasions, such as scattering small groups of loyalists throughout the hall to applaud at suitable moments.

Even so, the chairman should not be given too much credit for cunning. There could easily have been a vote on Iraq if the four largest unions had decided they wanted one. Instead they preferred to support one another's pet preoccupations, which did not happen to include Mr Blair's most recent military adventure.

In any case, though there was no specific vote, Iraq was debated quite fully on the Wednesday afternoon. Mrs Alice Mahon apart, the conscience of the People's Party was largely silent or had been left at home to look after the cat. In fact the best speech of the afternoon - it may be of the week - was delivered by Mrs Ann Clwyd, who has been urging the forcible removal of Saddam Hussein for as long as I can remember. Those of us who follow these matters had heard it all before. But, as Mrs Clwyd realises, the old tunes are the best tunes.

There is no great mystery about why the comrades were as equable as they were. Mr Blair explained their docility to them. They responded with loud and prolonged applause. These are my words rather than his: but every time a Labour government has come to power - in 1931, 1945, 1964, 1966 and 1974 - the joy has been speedily succeeded by a financial crisis. The government then cuts public expenditure. The party accuses the government of betrayal. So it goes on. There are a few years of squabbling, and then the Tories duly get back in.

This did not happen under Mr Blair, either after 1997 or after 2001. More to the point, it did not happen under Mr Gordon Brown. In previous years, Mr Blair has paid an affecting tribute to Mr Brown's stewardship of the economy. Not this year. If there has been anyone who has been proffered the frozen mitt and denied the big hello, it has not been Mr Blair at the hands of the conference but Mr Brown at the hands of Mr Blair.

This column does not take sides. It merely observes the passing scene. All the same, it is difficult not to feel a twinge of sympathy for the Prime Minister. On Monday Mr Brown's substitution of "Labour" for "New Labour", on however many occasions it turned out to be, was nothing less than an act of calculated defiance: highly diverting for us observers, but almost humiliating for Mr Blair. It seems that he was not only angry with Mr Brown but genuinely hurt. He had fancifully thought they were both comrades from the years in the wilderness, marching arm in arm across the desert until they crossed the Jordan and reached the promised land. It may have turned out to be short of milk and honey, but there we are.

Mr Brown remains Mr Blair's heir-apparent, not least because there is nobody else in view. The attempt to build up Mr David Blunkett as a contender did not come off. The latest smart-money candidate is Dr John Reid, who, as he demonstrated on Wednesday, has a real talent for popular oratory, as Mr Brown does not. He is also the minister who will do anything. He would happily support the Slaughter of the Firstborn (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill first thing in the morning with Mr John Humphrys and last thing at night with Mr Jeremy Paxman.

For Prime Ministers, such characters are as valuable as parliamentary majorities. Whether his qualities of obedience and adaptability would lead Mr Blair to support Dr Reid for the succession is another matter. But after Brown's Bid for the Leadership, which turned rapidly into Brown's Blunder, we may, I think, be fairly sure that he will not be easing Mr Brown's passage.

On this general question of the succession, the oldest story in the Labour Party is about the way C R Attlee prevented Mr Peter Mandelson's maternal grandfather, Herbert Morrison, from ever becoming leader. He managed this by staying on as leader himself, from the election defeat of October 1951 to December 1955, when Hugh Gaitskell was chosen overwhelmingly over a disappointed Aneurin Bevan and a humiliated Morrison.

For myself, I remain unconvinced that Morrison would have won at any time in the 1951-55 period. No matter. The accepted view is still that Attlee deliberately kept him out of the leadership by hanging on until it was too late for him. Morrison was a discredited former Foreign Secretary, the worst since Ethelred the Unready, or so the young Iain Macleod said at the time. But Mr Brown is the most successful Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer in history, rivalled only by Roy Jenkins.

And yet, for how much longer will Mr Brown's luck last? There were hints in Monday's speech that the rise in public expenditure will not be as great over the next two years as the delegates evidently assumed. And there are the consequences of the Iraq war to consider. It will avail Mr Brown little to hint that he had doubts about the enterprise from the start. In any event, he was persuaded on Newsnight to admit reluctantly that he supported it. Perhaps we shall continue to escape the traditional financial crisis. A rise in income tax is much more likely. Mr Brown will not then seem quite so indispensable. And Mr Blair will not need to do an Attlee to Mr Brown's Morrison after all.

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