Long goodbye

Print edition : October 20, 2006

At the annual Labour Party conference Prime Minister Tony Blair signals that he will step down in a year's time.

HASAN SUROOR in London

PRIME MINISTER TONY BLAIR with wife Cherie after his farewell speech at the Labour Party conference.-CARL DE SOUZA/AFP

SEPTEMBER 26 was an unusual, indeed historic, day for the Labour Party when, at least for a few hours, it came together in a rare show of unity after weeks of squabbling that had often descended into a "civil war" between the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown camps over the leadership issue.

The occasion was Prime Minister Blair's farewell speech at the party's annual conference in Manchester, which was held from September 24-28. To an outsider, it looked like one large mutual admiration society. The disarming smiles, the warm handshakes, cheek-to-cheek kisses and bear hugs belied Labour's image of a house deeply divided, and in the throes of a damaging crisis.

Blair's use of generous superlatives to describe Brown - "brilliant", "extraordinary" , "indispensable" - hid the fact that in recent weeks the two had been barely on speaking terms after an allegedly Brown-sponsored "coup" attempt against Blair. And Brown hardly looked the sort who would stab his boss in the back, hanging on to the Prime Minister's every word like an attentive pupil and not missing a chance to applaud him.

The conference had been billed a "make-or-break" event for the party. For the first time, since it came to power in 1997, Labour has lost its lead over the Conservatives, who are now head-to-head with it.

According to opinion polls, Labour could lose its parliamentary majority if elections were to be held "tomorrow" and in the event of a "hung" verdict, the new Tory leader David Cameron could well end up as the occupant of 10 Downing Street.

The mood was one of doom and gloom as the leadership tried to shift the headlines away from the leadership row which, as Blair noted in a BBC interview recently, had led the party to "go AWOL (absent without leave)". Blair's promise to quit over the next 12 months did not satisfy his critics, among whom were many Blair "loyalists".

Half-a-dozen junior members of his government resigned in the run-up to the conference insisting that he quit immediately or announce a firm timetable for his exit. The clamour for him to go grew during the conference amid concern that his continuance could damage irreparably the party's prospects in the crucial local elections scheduled for early next year.

CHANCELLOR OF THE Exchequer Gordon Brown delivers his speech.-PAUL ELLIS/AFP

The conference was nearly derailed when the Prime Minister's wife, Cherie, was overheard criticising Brown, calling his professed loyalty to Blair a "lie". The next day, with the "Cherie outburst" grabbing the headlines and Brown-ites seeing red, Cherie Blair was forced to deny the purported remark after a clarification from Downing Street did not help.

Brown's speech, which preceded Blair's by 24 hours, was described by one party insider as the "longest job application in history". One commentator pointed out that it was his most direct pitch for the leadership and the tenancy of 10 Downing Street as he unveiled his "vision" for the party and the country.

In what was seen as a dig at Blair, he said he did not believe in the "politics of spectacle". His was the politics of "substance", he said, and vowed to put "the soul" back into New Labour. And lest anyone missed the point, he declared his candidature saying that he would "relish the opportunity to take on David Cameron and the Conservatives".

"I know where I come from, what I believe and what I can contribute. And I am confident that my experience and my values give me the strength to take the tough decisions," he claimed as Blair, sitting behind him, watched with bemusement.

For Blair, the conference marked the start of a "long goodbye" before he steps down next year - unless, of course, he is forced to go even earlier. The Times described his farewell address as "Blair's Last Hurrah". Even Blair's worst critics grudgingly conceded that it was perhaps the best performance of his career. And that is saying something considering that even at his worst he is a formidable speaker - arguably the best in British politics today.

It was an emotional moment for Blair as he rose to speak amid a standing ovation from members, including those who blame him for the party's growing unpopularity and have been urging him to go. Placards hailing him as the "Best PM Ever" and "Thank U Tony" greeted him when he entered the conference venue with his wife. Many wondered why the party wanted to get rid of him when it seemed to be so much in love with him. "I nearly wanted to say, don't go Tony," admitted one Labour activist who had been calling for his resignation.

It was Blair's 13th party conference as leader and 10th as Prime Minister. He admitted that having been at the top for so long, it was hard to "let go". "But it is also right to let go. For the country and for you, the party," he declared in a choked voice, promising to remain at the service of the party even after relinquishing office.

Blair then rammed home the finality of his imminent departure with these words: "Next year, I won't be making this speech. But, in the years to come, wherever I am, whatever I do I'm with you.... You're the future now so make the most of it." That got him another standing ovation.

It was vintage Blair, but even his close confidantes acknowledged that time had taken its toll on him and that he now looked "his age". Less diplomatic colleagues described him as a "shadow" of the young leader who took over the reins of the party in 1994 and injected into it a mood of infectious optimism that saw Labour return to power three years later with a historic mandate.

Blair himself was conscious of what the burden of office had done to him. In a self-deprecatory line, he confessed that he now looked a "lot older" and quipped: "This is what being Labour Party leader does to you."

But it was also a defiant Blair who had a dig at his critics for questioning his commitment to the party's "traditions". In an acerbic tone, he said: "They say I hate the party and its traditions. I don't love the party. There's only one tradition I hated: losing. I hated the 1980s not just for our irrelevance but for our revelling in irrelevance." That was his way of reminding party members that they owed a debt to him for bringing the party back to power after it had been written off as a viable political force - and they were "revelling" in its "irrelevance" rather than do anything about it.

Blair justified his controversial alliance with the United States and Britain's role in the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. He sought to portray his critics as victims of "enemy propaganda" and warned them that the "war on terror" would never be won unless they shook themselves free of the "wretched capitulation to the propaganda of the enemy".

He rejected the view that British and American policies were fuelling terrorism. "This terrorism isn't our fault. We didn't cause it. It's not the consequence of foreign policy. It's an attack on our way of life. It's global. It has no ideology," he said.

Those hoping that Blair, in the twilight of his power, would be more responsive to British public opinion, which is overwhelmingly against the continued occupation of Iraq, were disappointed. He flatly rejected calls for withdrawal of British troops, calling them a prescription for "surrender" to the enemy.

"If we retreat now, hand over Iraq to Al Qaeda and sectarian death squads and give Afghanistan back to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, we won't be safer. We will be committing a craven act of surrender that will put our future security in the deepest peril," he warned.

AN ANTI-WAR PROTEST in Manchester on September 23, before the start of the conference.-AP

His parting advice to the party was that it should not abandon the winning streak that he brought to it. "Do keep on winning. Do it with optimism... I don't want to be the Labour leader who won three successive elections. I want to be the first Labour leader to win three successive elections," he said, warning Brown, his putative successor, that the challenges he is likely to face as leader would be more daunting than the ones he faced when he took over.

In an oblique warning that the party would be ignoring his advice at its own cost, Blair told his audience: "It's up to you. You take my advice. You don't take it. Your choice. Whatever you do, I'm always with you. Head and heart."

So, what did the conference achieve? The fact is that it was not expected to achieve much, except to make sure that the party withstood five days of public and media scrutiny. And that it was able to achieve.

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