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Monday 29th September 2003

Labour Party Conference

The Today Programme went to Bournemouth to cover the Labour Party Conference.  Our Presenter, James Naughtie gives his reflections on the main events of the week...

Bournemouth never seems to be the natural home for a Labour conference. Blackpool, where the chip shops still fry madly and the candy floss still sticks to your chin, seems to fit more neatly. But why? It’s a nice question, which touches on the real point of this week’s conference.

I wouldn’t want to denigrate the efforts of ministers, junior and senior, who did their best to rouse the audience, even after lunch. But this was a week all about Blair and Brown, of course. People who say that politics is distorted by personalities can’t escape this fact any more than the rest of us.

From the moment Gordon Brown rose on Monday morning we knew something quite dramatic was in the wind. By chance, the rest of the Cabinet, including the Prime Minister, weren’t there because they’d gone en masse to the funeral in Oxfordshire of the leader of the Lords, Lord Williams of Mostyn , so Brown was alone. And those last paragraphs!….

Labour governments weren't about programmes, but about soul, he said. And then the last line, about Labour being best when it was bold and best when it was LABOUR.

Sometimes we’re accused of reading too much into these little rhetorical flourishes. Don’t believe we’re the only ones. I spoke to someone close to the Prime Minister immediately afterwards. What did he think? "Naked”, was the reply. Someone else in the Downing Street circle said : “Brazen. Quite amazing.”Brown’s language was interpreted by all the insiders as an obvious challenge to Blair’s authority.

He was appealing to the party tradition and to imply, as he did, that the way out of present difficulties was to be more Labour, and by implication not at all new Labour, was as clear a signal as you could get. By lunchtime it was obvious that all the papers would be writing a Brown-Blair story for the morning, as the chancellor must have known when he got to his feet with that text in front of him.

Up in his suite, the Prime Minister hadn’t finished his own speech for the next day.. By Tuesday lunchtime, still working on it, I gather, through lunch (and he was due to speak at 2.30) he was having to craft an appeal to the conference that would also be an answer to his chancellor, with whom the old rivalry and difficulty has been bubbling up again these last few months. He did it. By common consent across the political spectrum it was masterly, whether to your taste or not. Tony Benn, who disagreed with almost everything in it told us he thought it was Blair’s most authoritative speech.

Blairites were in rapture, and by the evening it was the Prime Minister who was swanning around the parties (The Animals, believe it or not, were playing at the Northern MPs’ bash) with a very wide grin, just as Gordon Brown had gone on a back-slapping tour the night before.

The episode was a typical conference affair. A few words…an atmosphere…a sense of the world stopping for a moment…At these time you sense that all the bustle of the conference managers, and the trade stands, and the hundreds of fringe meetings big and small slips into the background to reveal a political moment that will last, long after the stage set and the studios have been cleared away and taken north to Blackpool for the Tories.

I can’t know precisely what will emerge from the twin performances of Prime Minister and Chancellor, but I know – this isn’t a hunch, it’s knowledge – that they will have a difficult conversation or two in the weeks ahead.

The tone for all this had been set on Sunday when Channel Four gave a preview of their film The Deal before its broadcast that night. The film was inspired by my own book on Blair and Brown (The Rivals) but of course it was a work of drama, not history.

Yet it seemed to me to catch very accurately the way the relationship has bucked and swayed over the years, and how the moment when Blair was given a clear run by Brown for the leadership in 1994 still resonates in Labour politics. The result was a very old-fashioned conference – subtle in its moods, unreadable in some of its gossip and behind-stairs dealings.

On the platform, of course, all was orderly and polite. Off stage, there was much muttering. Why, for example was Brown lunching alone with the editor of The Sun just before Blair’s speech? What was up? Why did Blair, for the first time, make a leader’s speech without mentioning the Chancellor? Why did John Prescott feel that in his closing speech he had to appeal to people to sort out their differences? To whom could he have been referring?

We spent our early mornings in a small room in the conference hotel, draped with blankets to try to get some decent studio sound. I’m afraid that from day one it start to fill alarmingly with discarded papers, flyers for every conceivable fringe meeting, bits of croissant and so on – though we tried to do a bit of a clean-up before the Prime Minister came down on Wednesday morning.

It was a struggle to stop David Blunkett’s dog getting hold of a sticky Danish pastry and at one stage I thought our soundproofing superstructure was going to fall on my head just as I was introducing Thought for the Day. But we survived.

Sarah will go through it all next week in Blackpool, where traditionally we broadcast from a van parked in the car park of the Imperial Hotel, buffetted by the winds off the sea.

The buffetting in Bournemouth was from the politics. Under the surface we all had a sense of something moving, though in a direction no-one could quite chart. From Brown’s stamping ovation on Monday to the remarkable welcome given to Blair the next day before he uttered a word, from the dismissal of union “cliques and cabals” by Blunkett on the programme on Thursday to Prescott’s traditional stemwinder on the last afternoon, it was a Labour conference that Blair wanted to turn into a new beginning after his wretched summer.

His speech achieved its political aims as a conference morale-booster, but of course the real test comes afterwards. Around the Cabinet table will they be able to put their troubles behind them? Lord Hutton still has to report, Iraq presents many difficulties, the question of trust still hangs heavy over them all.

And when the Prime Minister talks of a great national consultation about the way forward, what exactly does he mean? We don’t know. But this time, as he knows, he has to deliver.

Sometimes people think that there has to be a huge public row for a conference to be “exciting”. That’s to misunderstand politics. There was fire enough in the debates on Iraq and foundation hosptials, but the real story was outside the hall where everybody spoke long into the night about the two main speeches of the week. What were they saying to each other? And what will they say to each other next?

As they used to say of Skegness, Bournemouth – it’s so bracing!

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