Alan Watkins: Mr Blair and the ghost of Mrs Thatcher

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The Independent Online

Once installed in a boarding house by the seaside, our delegate would assiduously attend each morning and afternoon session, perhaps making a speech, and certainly taking copious notes. Having returned to the local party, he or she would deliver a lengthy report on the lines of "What I did on my holidays". It would invariably conclude with the pious observation that, whatever the conference may have been like, it was certainly not the one that had been attended by the press, which typically had seen nothing but dissension and discord all over the place.

There is a view that, in this golden age of Labour conferences, a rough-and-ready comradeship prevailed, and that the segregation of the leaders and the led has come about partly through the rise of "security" and partly through the changed nature of the modern party. There was, it is true, a brief period when deference had died and delegates - inspired by the example of the Young Liberals - came to realise that they could storm the headquarters hotel and lie on the floor there if only they had the price of a half pint of bitter on them.

But it was this relatively short period that was aberrant. Before it had stretched a time when the National Executive Committee, together with a few prosperous MPs and the representatives of the national newspapers, had inhabited the headquarters hotel as if they were sailing in a cruise liner. A humble delegate might just about be allowed to touch the hem of Aneurin Bevan's expensive, double-breasted, hand-constructed suit: but any further intimacy would be severely discouraged.

The conference was not a meeting between the party and the Labour front bench, still less the Labour government (if there was a Labour government), but between the party and the National Executive. I never ceased to wonder at the greed displayed by the members of this body. Having enjoyed a hearty breakfast at the headquarters hotel, paid for out of the workers' pennies, they would then be conveyed by a special bus - what Harold Macmillan used to call a charabanc - from the hotel to the conference centre. At lunchtime the coach would return to the hotel, then back to the conference again. And the day's labours would conclude with a substantial dinner at the hotel.

Irrespective of whether this collective self-indulgence still goes on, both the importance and the independence of the NEC have declined to the point of virtual invisibility. To a certain extent, this was inevitable. After 1964, when Harold Wilson formed the first Labour government for 13 years, it was manifestly absurd that the main speech on, say, the economy should be given by a trade unionist who was not even number one in his or her union. The first Labour Chancellor to address the conference from the platform because of his office, rather than because of his membership of the NEC, was Roy Jenkins; and that was by invitation rather than as of right.

There has, however, been some misunderstanding about Denis Healey's position in 1976. If he had given notice, he would almost certainly have been allowed to speak from the platform. But his original intention had been to miss the conference altogether, going instead to a gathering overseas. He changed his mind on his way to the airport and turned up unexpectedly in Blackpool, where he received a rough reception.

How different, how very different, was the reception given to Mr Gordon Brown last week! Before he opened his mouth, ministers who had previously been regarded as Mr Tony Blair's men (or women) were pledging their undying allegiance to the new Prime Minister. In his speech he displayed vision, purpose, values, all sorts of desirable commodities. There was, it is true, nothing in it about the economy, but you cannot have everything in this world. He was even going to embark on Brown's Rural Rides, to what purpose was not entirely clear: though what was clear, or seemed to be so, was that Mr Brown would be taking over sooner rather than later.

Then along came Mr Blair to spoil everything. He would be going on and on and on, and up and up and up, just like Ramsay MacDonald. The ministers who had previously welcomed a speedy Brown succession had to row back to land. Mr Blair was cheered louder and longer. He was even cheered for claiming that we were bringing democracy to Iraq. There was no Mr Walter Wolfgang to cry "nonsense" at this stage (though the words I caught on television were "that's a lie"). In much the same way must the Führer - himself no mean orator, especially before a large rally - have assured his cheering audience that the occupation of the Sudetenland undoubtedly added to the sum of freedom.

Politicians are like publishers: they want a repeat of the latest best-seller. Or they are like generals, always fighting the last war. Mr Blair arouses professional admiration not only because of his capacity to win elections but because of his ability to get away with anything. Every year he grows more mephistophelean in appearance. Indeed, if there were a remake of Rosemary's Baby, he could plausibly appear as the impregnator of the actress playing the Mia Farrow part.

I remain fascinated by his use of language. On Tuesday, for instance, he told quite a funny story involving someone he called "Reverend Paisley". I cannot believe that Mr Blair is unaware of the way in which clergymen and ministers of religion are referred to in polite society. I therefore conclude that he broke with convention deliberately, to make himself more at one with popular usage. Or he may have concluded as a matter of principle that conventional English was divisive, not "inclusive", to use the cant word of the moment. In any case, I am sure he would not have tried to make a joke about Mr Gerry Adams or Mr Martin McGuinness, because the Prime Minister has a healthy respect for power.

The Tories seem to want to be led by someone like him. In many ways he has modelled himself on Margaret Thatcher. As Chris Patten said recently, it was she who destroyed the Tory Party. Mr Blair might end up likewise destroying the Labour Party - if he has not done so already.