Mark Seddon: What the Prime Minister must say to regain trust

He should, but is unlikely to, sketch out an exit strategy for British troops
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The Independent Online

Tony Blair faces a herculean task today as he prepares to deliver a speech designed to put cheer into the hearts of Labour activists - and persuade the country that his Government deserves a third term.

I am now old enough - and I hope wise enough - to detect the usual hype that precedes a great Blair tour de force. This involves a series of threatened revolts, predictions of an impossible week for the Prime Minister and the conference dissolving into fratricidal factions. None of this has ever happened but this week, for the first time in a decade, the much-reduced ranks of Labour's activists do seem prepared to throw their weight around on issues that matter to them, such as housing.

Once upon a time, Mr Blair's speeches were designed mainly for wider public consumption, with comrades in the hall taken largely for granted. This time, Mr Blair has a bigger job on his hands. He will want to persuade the public that he can be trusted again, and work his way into the affections of the party faithful. So he could begin with that one-line opener he used to great effect at a Tribune meeting many moons ago: "Friends, colleagues, er, comrades!" said he to relieved cheers. As an ice-breaker, it is difficult to envisage anything better.

But this time, Mr Blair will know that his usual, media-friendly, protean homilies will not wash as well as a good old-fashioned political speech littered with references to Labour heroes, the NHS, the unions and an internationalism at its best when tackling Third World poverty - and at its miserable worst in the charnel house that is Iraq.

For a start, the "wonkathon" think-tanks seem to have run dry of ideas. Communitarianism, stake-holding and the Third Way are passé and eminently forgettable. As I fear will soon be the fate for the Chancellor Gordon Brown's "progressive consensus". But it is the Chancellor on whom Mr Blair must shower praise tomorrow, for Mr Brown has been the powerhouse of this Government, and the author of many of its better policies for the working poor, the public services and the developing world. Gordon Brown's legendary immovability has also caused problems, not least over pensions, but thank the Chancellor, Mr Blair must.

And since most of the think-tanks now largely spout corporate-sponsored market solutions, Tony Blair can make real play of the accord his ministers thrashed out with the unions in Warwick during the summer - and not through gritted teeth.

Now if Tony Blair also threw in a line as to why "everyone should be sensible and join a union", he would have the Labour conference eating from his hand - and he would have done a lot to repair the damage of recent years with the seven million or so trade unionists. Returning to base isn't just good spade work, it is imperative.

There is, of course, the knockabout fun that Mr Blair can have with Michael Howard, but few in his audience inside - or outside - the hall take the Tories as seriously as the Prime Minister. The Liberal Democrats are a different matter. They are viscerally loathed by most Labour councillors and activists. A few cracks at "flip-flop" Charlie Kennedy, the man who can't work out whether he is of the left or the right, would do wonders.

Buttons can be touched aplenty on the domestic agenda, although the Prime Minister would do well to avoid the techno-managerial gobbledygook that has brought us "step change", "blue-sky thinking" and "roll out". But a reasonable economic record, improving public services and much else besides will provide Mr Blair with the ammunition for what he is best at - a lawyerly peroration for the defence.

However, all of the linguistic tricks and contortions will not allow the PM off the hook over Iraq. This, in his heart, he must already know as his threadbare arguments for war - and remaining at war - unravel in front of a deeply sceptical public. He should, but he won't, apologise for taking Britain into an illegal, immoral and costly war. He should, but is unlikely to, sketch out an exit strategy for British troops.

Here is what he should say tomorrow: "Friends, it is possible to have regrets in politics. It is also possible to make mistakes. I was mistaken over Saddam's weapons programmes, and I regret not listening more closely to many of you and to our allies in the rest of Europe. We are all agreed that dictators like Saddam have no place in a modern world, but in future I will work through international institutions and within the law to take them on. I regret that we have made such little progress with the Middle East road map, which is now our top international priority. And friends, I have to say that in order for there to be successful elections and peace in Iraq, we must set an early date for the withdrawal of coalition troops, something that must take place in conjunction with the United Nations."

He should say this, but I have a sinking suspicion that he is as likely to do so as he would remember the words to the Internationale.

The author is a member of the Labour National Executive Committee