Darcus Howe laments Paul Boateng's failure

Paul Boateng could have unified the Labour conference. He failed

I promised my editor that this week I would address the issue of John Major, the fun-loving Brixton boy who had an affair with Edwina Currie. But I have been in Blackpool, where the talk is all of Paul Boateng, the Treasury Chief Secretary, who was humiliated on the Monday before the entire conference.

I have written here before about my friend Boateng, the first black cabinet minister. I promised him recently that I would take care not to throw stones at him in this column or anywhere else. He gets angry if I write about him negatively. After he had been slow-handclapped, jeered and heckled during his first conference speech as a cabinet minister, I wanted to speak to him personally, rather than write about what had happened. One delegate bet me £10 that I would not even set eyes on him.

He lost his bet. I saw Paul at a reception given by the Bermuda government to promote tourism. He waved at me but appeared completely uninterested in me or anything I might have to say. So here I am, writing about it after all.

He spoke in the debate on the private finance initiative, where many in the labour movement believe that the government is getting poor value for money, and that the workers are suffering bad conditions. I did not think the two sides were so very far apart. The unions wanted a review of the PFI; the government seemed to be saying "please give us a little space so that we can get this business right". The way was open for one of those classic, memorable conference speeches in which a politician who supports the leadership's policy can take the critics along with him by showing a strong philosophical base and a generosity of spirit to dissenters. Gordon Brown came close. He appealed for trust; he had passion, intellectual clarity and generosity.

Then came Boateng, a man who, with deep experience of racism, has needed to show generosity to its perpetrators. But what did we get? He read a fifth-rate speech written by a sixth-rate civil servant full of sound and fury, and statistics that signified nothing. It was divisive and confrontational.

When Boateng hit the platform, a frisson went through the hall. Many of the delegates were people who had supported him on the way to the top. They wanted him to lift the conference out of division. And he failed. Boateng will never get that opportunity again; it comes once in a blue moon for a politician. I left the conference that night deeply saddened.