Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Blair's Enemy Isn't within, It's Ahead

Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Blair's Enemy Isn't within, It's Ahead

Article excerpt


It may have been the most successful conference speech that Mr Blair will ever make. It was well-delivered and well-crafted, with hardly any of those verbless sentences which were intended to convey strength, but merely sounded irritating. It was also well-structured. The sections on the economy and on welfare were bound to displease many delegates. Few of them approve of paying good head teachers 60,000 or 70,000 a year and fewer still approve of sacking bad head teachers; there were probably a fair number of those in the hall. All that was dealt with in the first third of the speech. Thereafter, Mr Blair concentrated on his party's erogenous zones - Mo Mowlam, Third World aid, Nelson Mandela, the Stephen Lawrence case - and on its bogy-men, the Tories.

When he spoke last year, Mr Blair gave the impression that he still had to pinch himself to prove that he was not dreaming and that he actually was Prime Minister. His audience were still pinching themselves to make sure that they really had won a landslide and unseated Michael Portillo, and even this year, Mr Blair could still appeal to election night euphoria. Much of the hall may be uneasy about many aspects of Blairite policies, but that does not yet matter. Throughout his speech, Mr Blair's body language reinforced the frequent references to the Tories to convey the message that the Labour party most wants to hear: `We've stuffed the Tories.'

So the delegates listened to a different speech from the one that the next day's newspapers reported; another instance of Mr Blair's cunning. By the time he sat down, most delegates had forgotten the passages which had not uplifted them, and had lost themselves in tribal enthusiasm. But then Alastair Campbell went into the press enclave to interpret the speech. He was instantly surrounded by such a flock of journalists and cameramen that others rushed towards the scene, thinking that Mr Blair himself must have arrived. Toughness and backbone were Mr Campbell's preferred texts, and anyone inspired to draw comparisons with Mrs Thatcher in 1981`You turn if you want to, the Lady's not for turning' - should feel free to indulge themselves. Hence some of the next day's headlines.

But when Mrs Thatcher gave her speech, Britain was already well into recession and the trade unions were still in a position to assail the central authority of the state, while the CBI was panicking as were some members of her Cabinet. Two years into government, the Tories had also realised that they had inherited an economy whose supply side was in an advanced state of sclerosis, and that the cure would require much more than the successful management of monetary policy. By the time of her `no turning back' speech, Mrs Thatcher was embattled on all fronts, and loving it.

Mr Blair would like us to believe that he is relishing similar challenges. In reality, this is an entirely rhetorical exercise, just as the Left whom he is supposed to have faced down is in no position to offer serious resistance. In Singapore, there is a leader of the opposition who is allowed to do some minimal campaigning during general elections, but spends much of the rest of his time in jail; the modern Labour Left plays a similar role.

Mr Blair has no wish to hasten its final extinction; from time to time, he finds it useful to pretend to have confronted it. But for the foreseeable future the Left is powerless, and knows it. …

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