Remorse, resolution and just the hint of some real radicalism to come

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Yesterday as he took the podium in the hall of the Brighton Conference Centre, Tony Blair knew that he had to satisfy two tough audiences: his own, slightly unnerved, party supporters and the much larger and angrier audience in the country. On the whole, the Prime Minister rose to what was no easy challenge.

Yesterday as he took the podium in the hall of the Brighton Conference Centre, Tony Blair knew that he had to satisfy two tough audiences: his own, slightly unnerved, party supporters and the much larger and angrier audience in the country. On the whole, the Prime Minister rose to what was no easy challenge.

This was clearly a politician who knew he had a fight on his hands. When Mr Blair began to think about his speech, in the summer, his party still enjoyed a 20-point lead over the Conservatives, and his own ratings were at near-record levels. All that has now gone, and Mr Blair is obviously well aware of it. So he rightly acknowledged the public's dissatisfaction with the Dome, although he could safely have gone much further and stated quite plainly that, although it was a decision made in good faith, it was simply the wrong one, and that the enterprise had been enormously wasteful of the public's money.

He was also right, and more convincing, on pensions. Mr Blair told us that the Government had "got the message" on pensions and understood the public's disgust at the 75p weekly increase that pensioners were awarded.

The problem for Mr Blair is that saying sorry - which he did not quite manage - is not enough, and that, on pensions as much as on the National Health Service and schools, the detailed policies that he promised for his second term, worthy though they may be, count for far less than people's everyday experiences of the public services. For far too long New Labour's high-blown rhetoric, double-counting and talk about meaningless billions have run far ahead of the facts on the ground. There are signs that the party has now learnt some painful lessons about the perils of spin.

Vitally, too, Mr Blair finally took on some of the real arguments about the fuel tax: that, for all the hardship that may be experienced by individual road hauliers and farmers, and the undeniably higher price of petrol and diesel in Britain than in the rest of Europe, we still have lower income tax and national insurance rates; and that we have one of the lowest overall tax burdens among the developed economies.

Disappointingly, Mr Blair neglected the sound environmental arguments for high fuel duties, but he was correct in highlighting the "fog" that descends on rational debate about tax and public spending when the tractors and the trucks get going. And he was right to tell the protesters bluntly that, while he would listen to them, the duty of a government is to rule in the long-term interests of the nation as a whole and to protect those groups who lack the brute strength of the new, primarily self-seeking, militants. In doing that, Mr Blair attacked the forces of conservatism again, but much more skilfully than in his disastrous performance last year, and this time he made a carefully judged recognition that there were decent "one nation" Conservatives out there who deserved to be recognised but had been abandoned by their party.

There were omissions: there was nothing about freedom of information; there was an alarming lack of attention to the unfinished business of constitutional reform; and on the euro there was less sign of Mr Blair being ready to take on his opponents. However, he did succeed in concentrating the minds of his audiences in the hall and in the country away from the minutiae of fuel duty and on to what he called "the big choices". It was a grown-up speech from a maturing prime minister, and one that promised just a few hints of a more radical second term.

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