Politicians tear up the script

SUN JOURNAL

Conferences: Defying expectations, Britain's ruling Labor Party heals, embracing Tony Blair, while infighting bogs down Conservatives.

October 13, 2003|By James Lyons | James Lyons,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LONDON - The funny hats and the long-winded speeches that are the hallmarks of political conventions in the United States were in great supply over the past couple of weeks in two of Britain's seaside towns: this country's two biggest parties were on the conference trail.

Like conventions in the United States, the gathering of Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party was a carefully choreographed affair, this one held in Bournemouth. The conference of his Conservative rivals, who met in Blackpool, was no less planned.

But something very British happened on the way to those conventions: The scripts were torn up. The Labor Party, wounded by the war in Iraq, was healed, at least in some measure. Tony Blair, on the defensive over the war, went on the offensive and prevailed.

The Conservatives, who had been riding a wave of momentum as they tried to get back into power, ended up crashing and gasping for air.

Unlike presidential conventions in the United States, party conferences in Britain are held yearly. While who will lead the parties here is rarely decided at these events, they do act as navigation devices of sorts, moving leadership one way or the other in preparation for the next national election. Blair is expected to call for elections in 2005, and while that may seem a long way off, jockeying for political standing is a never-ending effort in Britain. The conferences provide a high-profile platform for the parties to make their case.

This year, the ritual seaside trips proved an unexpected tonic for Blair. And they provided more evidence that the Conservatives have yet to revive themselves since committing matricide by knifing Margaret Thatcher.

It could all have been so different. And was supposed to be. Mired in the fallout from war in Iraq, Blair, once the most popular prime minister in British history, has the lowest approval ratings of his two terms. His party has not seen worse numbers in more than a decade.

The prime minister went to Bournemouth facing angry party members ready to revolt not only over the war but over the lack of progress in improving public services. There was talk of dumping him and letting a member of his Cabinet run in the next election.

His Conservative rival, Iain Duncan Smith, on the other hand, was supposed to use his party conference to take aim at the wounded prime minister, presenting the Conservatives as the low-tax alternative to Labor.

When the conferences were over, though, Blair was looking as strong as ever. It was Smith who was fighting calls from within his party to dump him before the next election. And the biggest benefactor may have been the Liberal Democratic Party, which has moved to even in the polls here - which is largely seen as more of a protest against the leading parties.

In Britain, where the media typically do more to shape perceptions than to report news, Blair and his party were portrayed as the disciplined bunch, while the headlines from the Conservative Party focused on efforts to dump Smith as its leader and his increasingly odd comments, which included a threat to stuff all of his opponents in a telephone booth.

Blair took his Iraq critics head-on. A guest appearance by Afghan leader Hamid Karzai in the slot filled last year by former President Bill Clinton - and Kevin Spacey - set a suitably pro-interventionist tone for the foreign policy debate. And the prime minister used his own speech to stare into the whites of his critics' eyes - and watch them blink first.

The only heckles he suffered all week were from disgruntled party members angry that the $16 ticket to his reception did not entitle them to free beer.

He did have his tricky moments. Delegates did not like Blair's message that: "I do not have a reverse gear." It carried an echo of "the lady's not for turning" speech delivered many years before by Thatcher, the former Prime Minister who Blair admits to admiring. His party continues to loath her.

At the start of the conference, there was talk Blair would be dumped in favor of another Labor leader, Gordon Brown, who made it clear he was eager to lead the party and take over 10 Downing Street.

But Blair entered the conference hall to a rousing ovation and put his considerable oratorical skills to use, telling everyone he was the best they could find. "It is the only leadership I can offer," he told delegates. "And it is the only leadership worth having."

Aside from Blair's own remarks on Iraq, barely a word was heard about the war, with the delegates focused on union issues and public services. By the time he left Bournemouth, a retirement resort much like Miami Beach only without the sun, there seemed to be only one question over his future: How long after the next election might he decide he was ready to call it a day and hand power to Brown.

In contrast, Smith arrived in storm-lashed Blackpool and before the delegates could even begin complaining about their worn accommodations, whispers of a plot to unseat him proved true.

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