The tone was right, and they loved it

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He glistened with sweat under the television lights. He wore a red tie. He spoke for 55 minutes without reference to a "young country" the "giving age" or any of the other vacuous abstractions in previous conference speeches, all of them made in less testing times than this. No Tony Blair speech is free of artifice or showmanship but this was much less glossily varnished than before. It was the work of a man who now knows he may have a real fight on his hands and is clearly sincere when he says he relishes it.

He glistened with sweat under the television lights. He wore a red tie. He spoke for 55 minutes without reference to a "young country" the "giving age" or any of the other vacuous abstractions in previous conference speeches, all of them made in less testing times than this. No Tony Blair speech is free of artifice or showmanship but this was much less glossily varnished than before. It was the work of a man who now knows he may have a real fight on his hands and is clearly sincere when he says he relishes it.

It was not only a much more grounded and substantial speech than last year's; it was also tellingly appropriate to the times. He eschewed political philosophy. His acknowledgement of the outrage at the pitiful 75p increase in the state pension could not have been better judged; and if his apology for the Dome was not selfabasing enough for some critics, the fiasco was partly atoned for by the pledge to spend as much lottery money on youth sport. While acknowledging the anger over fuel duty, he reminded blockaders that the Government had to listen, too, to demands for better public services.

Much of the speech was a consciously unglamorous rehearsal of policies to meet those demands. He expounded a more unashamedly authoritarian agenda on law and order than anything that has gone before. It says much about how Labour has been transformed that his audience lapped this up. The party, more in touch with the misery of drugs-blighted estates than it has ever been, appears to want as much as he does the draconian extension of police powers he promised it.

He deftly cauterised the self-inflicted wound of last year's ill-judged attack on the "forces of conservatism". His tone, this time, was right. Yes, there were decent one-nation Tories. But not leading the present-day Conservative Party. This was in line with his projection of himself as a "unifier" and of the Hague-led opposition as, by its very nature, divisive.

In this, unscripted, peroration he tested the tolerance of a Labour audience to its limits by proclaiming his pride in the party's business support. But then he rewarded them, in perhaps the most electric and personal passage he has ever delivered, by defining his "irreducible core": he would not cut taxes at the expense of education; he would not put two xenophobic fingers up to Europe; and best of all perhaps, electors who sought exploitation of asylum and immigration should vote for "the other man".

All this will be at the heart at the election, but most of all it will be a fight between the goal of the shrinking state on the one hand and the determination to make public services a source of national pride on the other. His litany of £16bn worth of Tory cuts is an hyperbole. But until Mr Hague produces more facts and figures of his own it will remain a wholly defensible one. This was a speech by a man who knows that this fight, unlike the last, will be about issues rather than image, and who, for all the travails of the past weeks, is already mentally prepared to lead it.

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