They’ll miss him. After twelve years as leader, and more than nine as prime minister, Tony Blair finally took his bow at Labour’s Manchester conference. Next year someone else will stand at the podium. For a politician always at something of a distance from the party he will lead for only a few more months, this was a strangely emotional moment. For a party that has always shown him more respect than affection, Mr Blair’s farewell was a jolting reminder of what it was losing.
Whatever one thinks of his politics and policies, Mr Blair is the most accomplished performer of his generation. The speech sparkled with wit, self-deprecation and generosity. Mr Blair did what he does best. He told the story of Labour’s success in winning three consecutive general election victories, and then offered a gentle sermon on how, without him, it might win a fourth.
An American visitor leaving the hall after the party faithful had stopped cheering gave voice to the private thoughts of many in the prime minister’s party. Whatever the recriminations about Iraq or about his careless disregard for once sacred Labour ideology, Britain is unlikely to produce a politician like Mr Blair for another generation or more.
There were moments in the speech when Mr Blair seemed almost to say that, really, he had loved the party all along: “Whatever you do, I’m always with you. Head and Heart”. There were skilful reminders too of the progress made since 1997 in advancing the causes Labour most cherishes: reductions in child and pensioner poverty, a minimum wage, well-funded schools and hospitals, the assault on deprivation and disease in Africa. For an instant, the acrimony and infighting that has scarred the party and government during the past few weeks was stilled. They cheered as if they meant it. It sounded too as if Mr Blair meant it.
True, there were moments during the speech when you felt that after nearly a decade in 10 Downing Street he had lost touch with reality. During his final months in office, Mr Blair declared, he would devote himself to seeking a Middle East peace settlement. A noble cause, but one well beyond his reach.
But the core of Mr Blair’s message was a bigger one. If Labour is to succeed it cannot stop changing. Its mission in 1997 had been to marry economic efficiency to the quest for a fairer society. The task now was to face the sweeping challenges of globalisation: how to keep Britain open to the opportunities of an increasingly borderless world while preserving the security, economic and physical, of its citizens.
Here Mr Blair defined the task for his successor. After the events of recent weeks, it must be an open question whether Labour still has the energy or unity to rise to it.
But the party has changed. Who would have said a decade ago, that a Labour conference could cheer plans for nuclear power, could scoff at the Conservatives for being soft on crime, would salute the armed forces with enthusiasm, and, at the end of its leaders’ speech, set the union flag as its conference backdrop? His government’s achievements have never quite matched Mr Blair’s soaring rhetoric, but, if nothing else, he has changed irrevocably the rules of British politics.