John Rentoul: Brown's speeches always fall slightly below expectations, Blair's always exceed them

There are not many people who can make a Labour audience clap identity cards
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It was only a couple of weeks ago that we read with disbelief the memo that was beyond satire, which set out plans for Tony Blair to make a "farewell tour" that left "the crowd wanting more". Yet it turned out that it was not satire at all, but prophecy. Because yesterday's conference speech was like a band that reunited for one last gig, only it was a one-man band, reunited with his ambivalent party, and it was the party that was left wanting more.

Yes, it was an easy speech to make in one sense because the party desperately wanted to be nice to him. It is called a guilt complex, because they feel guilty and it is very complicated. They feel guilty because they know that Blair has been forced out - in a politer way than Margaret Thatcher, in that he is being allowed to serve out his notice - but they have let him go. The delegates in Manchester felt sorry for him, and embarrassed by their part in his downfall.

They understood, better perhaps than many journalists, that Blair was forced to declare in advance that this would be his last conference speech not just by a Gordon Brown-inspired plot. If all that Blair had to worry about earlier this month was the threat to resign of a junior defence minister and seven unpaid bag-carriers, he would have just told them to take a running jump.

He did, in fact, telling Tom Watson, the minister, that he was "disloyal, discourteous and wrong". But Jacqui Smith, Blair's new, last-ditch chief whip, must have told him that the majority of Labour MPs would join the revolt if he did not put a new 12-month time limit on his period in office.

The delegates yesterday felt guilty because they had wanted him to go. As soon as he said he was going, of course, they were not so sure. So it was perhaps the easiest of Blair's 13 conference speeches, yet it was still a historic moment, and a challenge to which he rose apparently without effort. That has always been true of Blair; it is one of his greatest oratorical strengths. There has never been an important occasion when words of quality and well-judged tone are demanded to which he has failed to rise.

The contrast with Gordon Brown the previous day could not have been starker. Blair, it was predicted, would deliver a "vintage" speech; he exceeded expectations. Brown, it was said, menacingly, would have to deliver the speech of his life and he did not quite match up. For those who have listened to Blair and Brown speeches for more than 15 years, Blair always rises to the occasion; Brown never quite does.

On Monday the Chancellor delivered his equivalent of Iain Duncan Smith's "quiet man" speech - his address to the Conservative conference two years ago in which he sought to turn his weakness to a strength. Two weeks later, he was gone. Brown will still be with us, but the doubts about him are gathering like dark grey storm clouds.

Whatever one's doubts about the robustness or applicability of US pollster Frank Luntz's methods, Brown cannot simply shrug off the fact that in a room of 30 potential Labour voters, none voted for him as leader. The group was recruited for Newsnight on Monday, and was exposed to the rival charms of Brown, John Reid, David Miliband and Alan Johnson.

Through those dark clouds shone yesterday's ray of sunshine that was Blair the Optimist. Somehow he managed to turn the bittersweet occasion of his premature bundling towards the exit into a master class in how to deliver not just a speech but a political message that could, if anyone else could deliver it, sweep David Cameron aside at the next election.

Not only that, he roused the hall in a way Brown failed to. He remembered that what Labour delegates want to hear is Tory-bashing, and he gave them some great lines, above all the contemptuous "built to last?" Brown looked a bit surprised when the only big cheer he got was for saying he "relished" the chance to fight Cameron.

I don't know whether Brown, or Alastair Campbell (recalled for the reunion), knew it, but the line that politics was "about being a fully paid-up member of the human race before being a fully paid up member of the Labour Party" was a direct echo of the words of a man who used to be Campbell's deputy. Lance Price had said, in a television profile of Gordon Brown on Sunday, that some politicians appeared to belong to the human race, but the Chancellor was not one of them.

Equally, I do not think that the booking of Bill Clinton today to deliver another master class in the art of conversational politics was a conspiracy against Brown, but it too will emphasise the gap between what the Labour Party needs and what it is likely to get.

But I am sure that it was no accident that the only member of the Cabinet whom Blair mentioned in his speech - apart from John Prescott, who is also on his way out - was John Reid. I do not know whether Blair thinks that Reid can beat Brown in a leadership contest.

Of course, Cherie does not want Brown to succeed - that is the essential truth that drove yesterday's headlines. (For what it is worth, "that's a lie" was the wrong response to that bit of Brown's speech, when he said it was a privilege to work with Blair - she was more likely to have said "pigs do fly".)

But her husband cannot afford to allow such personal animosity to colour his self-image as a statesman. Yet it was striking that Blair's praise for Brown was the absolute minimum necessary and wholly backward looking, saying - truthfully - that new Labour would not have happened without him (well it would have been rather different, anyway).

What is indisputable is that Blair thinks that Reid represents a bundle of issues on which Brown - and the Labour Party - is dangerously weak. The core of Blair's speech yesterday was an uncompromising message on immigration, crime, terrorism and foreign policy. There are not many people who can make a Labour audience clap identity cards, or the statement that the threat of jihadist terrorism is "not a consequence of foreign policy".

But the worry about Gordon Brown is that he sees these issues as questions of political positioning to be managed, rather than as issues that are central to maintaining the election-winning Labour coalition in future. That was the coded meaning, I thought, of Blair's reflection towards the end of his speech: "The British people will, sometimes, forgive a wrong decision, but - you know something? - they won't forgive not deciding."

That was his advice to his successor, whoever it is.

The writer is the chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday

j.rentoul@independent.co.uk

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