Gushing tributes hedged with caveats

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The Labour party and unions gave Tony Blair on Tuesday the kind of rapturous reception they largely denied him before he promised to leave office. But the tributes were hedged with caveats that point to the looming battles over the future political direction of the party.

Virtually everyone agreed on one thing – the prime minister’s farewell speech to conference had star quality. Even political opponents grudgingly admitted Mr Blair delivered an outstanding oration – although they dubbed this a triumph of political style, rather than substance. “This was a consummate performance by a consummate actor. But Tony Blair’s theatrics can’t disguise the bitter divisions of this paralysed government,” Francis Maude, the Conservative chairman, claimed.

The unions also lauded Mr Blair’s performance, while sending coded signals that they hope the next manifesto, sketched out by the prime minister, will reflect some old, as well as new, Labour concerns.

“Tony Blair has always been a great communicator and it really showed today. He had the wow factor that has always allowed him to captivate an audience,” a seemingly enthralled Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, the giant public sector union, said.

Derek Simpson, general secretary of Amicus, welcomed the speech as “unifying,” while sending a subtle warning to Mr Blair about the future direction of the party, stressing the prime minister “said that he was listening and this can only be a good thing”.

Tony Woodley, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, said: “Love him or loathe him, it was a leader’s speech.”

The delegates were in no doubt about which of the two emotions set out by Mr Woodley they felt – the conference loved him. From the messages on hand-written banners waved as Mr Blair entered the hall – “Tony we love you” was typical – to the 9 minutes and 13 seconds standing ovation that greeted the speech, Labour activists appeared to set aside their ideological differences with their leader to applaud his achievements.

Blarite MPs and ministers were quick to seize on the speech as evidence of how much cause the party had to be grateful to its leader. “I’ll miss him, they’ll miss him, we’ll miss him,” Ann Clywd, the chair of the parliamentary Labour party, said.

The prime ministerial “masterclass in how to deliver a party conference speech” – as David Miliband, the environment secretary, dubbed the performance – will reach out to the public, according to Tessa Jowell, culture secretary and ardent Blairite. She said: “The great hallmark of Tony Blair is that he doesn’t have one conversation with the party and another conversation with the public.”

Brownites appeared relatively generous in their praise. Geoffrey Robinson, the former Treasury minister and close Brown ally, said Mr Blair’s tribute to the chancellor had been “very well judged”.

“It was a breathtaking speech. He will be missed very much but we will have to get on with it the best we can,” Mr Robinson said.

One senior Brown ally said: “It was probably the easiest speech Tony has ever had to deliver, given the circumstances. But it was a good speech.”

But some left Labour figures were more sceptical. John McDonnell, the left-
wing Labour MP who has said he will challenge Gordon Brown for the leadership, said: “It was a good farewell but it demonstrated that New Labour is drawing to an end. The era is over and we are going to move on.”

Walter Wolfgang, the peace activist ejected from Labour’s conference in Brighton last year, said Mr Blair’s speech was that of a man who “refuses to face facts”. “Frankly he is a dangerous man to have in mainstream politics. The sooner he goes the better,’’ he told Sky News.

The Liberal Democrats said Mr Blair had delivered the speech of a “lame duck” prime minister. “In more than an hour of oratory, he failed to tackle the crucial question the country needs answered – exactly when is he going?” said Ed Davey, the Lib Dem campaign co-ordinator. “The true legacy of his nine years in power is one of opportunities squandered.”

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