Politics - John Kampfner sees Blair miss Ceausescu's fate

There was only a tiny chance that Blair could have met a "Ceausescu moment" of public denunciation,

The Labour conference in Bournemouth was one of contradiction. One man outlined a vision but was reminded of his powerlessness to implement it. The other paraded a determination to hold on to power, but also an inability to find a greater purpose for it. Gordon Brown versus Tony Blair - politics reduced to soap opera, but a battle of competing visions that must soon reach its denouement.

This was a conference of confusion, too. The arrogance of the early years has not entirely disappeared, but is now displayed only by the myopic few. Nor was deep despair much in evidence. These were delegates looking for direction and for arguments to deploy in order to reverse the seemingly inexorable decline of trust in the Prime Minister and the political process. They received reassurance that theirs was a government still worth defending, but perhaps not much more than that.

Lurking in every conversation was the war. This was, as one minister put it to me, the "Iraq-plus conference - Iraq plus health, Iraq plus education, Iraq plus Tony, Iraq plus Gordon". The subject dominated the lunchtime and evening meetings outside the main hall. It ensured a more invigorating debate on the fringes than has been heard in previous years under Blair. The credit for that goes not just to the critics-in-chief, Robin Cook and Clare Short (if only they could get on better), but to the government loyalists who took them on - the likes of Charles Clarke, John Reid and Peter Mandelson.

These meetings - in small part acrimonious, in large part robust but civil - constituted an important rejoinder to those in government and the media who see disagreement only through the prism of division. They provided an intriguing insight into the degree of agreement between the many inside the tent and the increasing numbers outside it about the need for Blair to move on from his cliched new Labour certainties. There was much to be read into Reid's smile when Cook proclaimed the government as the most redistributive since Lloyd George but deplored what he called "social justice by stealth".

These debates, as the Blairites now admit, are a healthy - indeed, vital - component of the process of picking the party up. The hierarchy's adoption of the words "honesty" and "candour" is part sincere, part manufactured. It has still to shed its old ways. How else could the arrangements in the conference hall be explained, with happy-clappy, first-time delegates arranged neatly within the camera shot of the Prime Minister and with apparatchiks placed in strategic positions around the hall to reinforce the applause, while hundreds of other delegates had to watch on video screens outside? As ever at modern-day party conferences, there was only a tiny chance that it could have gone wrong for Blair - that he could have, in the words of one delegate, encountered a "Ceausescu moment" of public denunciation. Nevertheless, the controlling wing of the ultra-Blairite vanguard was not prepared to take the chance, and demonstrated the usual mix of hubris and underconfidence.

Still, they avoided trouble, which was the object of the exercise. It seemed, however, to take less than 24 hours for any feel-good factor arising from Blair's speech to begin to wear off. Will Blair's announcement of the "biggest policy consultation ever" go the same way as the "people's panels" he presaged after the 1997 election victory? The new officials in charge of policy in Downing Street will try to ensure that, this time, it gets off the ground. But Blair made clear that the areas under discussion would be heavily circumscribed. For once, accusations of style over substance were misplaced. Blair's speech set out a number of areas that will dictate the policy agenda over the next few years - crime, asylum, health, education, even identity cards. He also made it abundantly clear, in the only passage met with stony silence, that he will not countenance any change to the top rate of income tax. Given the rigidity of his path, and the candour with which he has committed himself to it, exactly what is there left to consult about?

Beyond the headline bills to be announced in the Queen's Speech at the end of next month, the Blair project - as its propagators would admit - is running empty on ideas. There is a jockeying for influence around him. The very public reappearances of Alan Milburn and Stephen Byers on the eve of the conference were interpreted as an attempt to lend support to the beleaguered Prime Minister. On one level, they were. But they were also part of efforts by a small but growing band around Blair, including several loyalists in the cabinet, to prod him ever so gently towards values more in keeping with most of his party. For the moment, they are confined to vapid statements about "fairness".

Genuflections were made in the leader's speech, but these were largely rhetorical, such as the lavish praise for public sector workers. It is not proving easy to shift Blair off the cement of the centre, especially now that Mandelson has stepped into the vacuum left by Alastair Campbell. Mandelson's restoration to a pivotal position is causing consternation among several in Downing Street.

One of the most revealing events of the week was a meeting of loyalists on the first evening - a historic continuum of the Kinnockites (such as Clarke and Reid) joined by the new generation of modernisers (Douglas Alexander and David Lammy, with David Miliband in the audience). Basking in his new role as elder statesman and guardian of the flame, Mandelson entreated them to "hold firm". He warned them that a "retreat" would be a "betrayal". He and others depict critics of Blair within the party as nothing more than the forces of resistance, trying to undermine the radicalism of the cause. They now depict those who supported war in Iraq to bring about regime change as the genuine radicals and revolutionaries battling the forces of conservatism.

Mandelson then denounced critics of the chosen path as "vainglorious". He had finally found the adjective that best describes his view of the Chancellor. The Brownites were not displeased with the media portrayal of Brown's speech as a challenge to Blair. They frame that challenge as much in terms of ideas as of leadership. But some around Brown wonder if he has not shown his cards too early. Where can he go from here, they ask, now that Blair has vowed to go on and on?

Just as he did in his speech at the TUC conference, Brown refrained from supporting Blair on Iraq. His references to the war were as brief as Blair's were extensive. Behind the soundbite that he would take the same decision again, the PM was laying the ground for a tactical retreat, with his bizarre rhetorical question: "So what do I do? Say, 'I've got the intelligence, but I've a hunch it's wrong'?" The British public is now being told what Blair and his people suspected all along - that the intelligence was, at best, flaky and incomplete. Blair's attempt to wriggle out of the mire is to put the reverse proposition: the intelligence might have been right, so I had to give it a go. Matters of war and peace have thus been reduced to judgement calls based on the law of probability.

With the conference out of the way, Blair has a brief respite while the Tories ponder their unhappy fate under Iain Duncan Smith. But when parliament resumes immediately afterwards, so will the problems - on the domestic agenda, tuition fees and the continued resistance to foundation hospitals that was so forcefully expressed in the conference vote on 1 October. A state visit to London by George W Bush will provide the PM with an embarrassing curtain-raiser for the conclusions of Lord Hutton. Many Labour MPs who allowed themselves to be led to war with artfully prepared dossiers say they are in a more determined mood now. But where will that determination lead them?

Blair is now saying that Iraq may have been an honest mistake, but it is time to achieve closure, to agree to disagree. The hope in Downing Street is that, by the end of the year, "reasonable-minded people" will have "moved on". If he is right, and they have, then he will have secured his office for some time to come. Blair and his entourage do not dare contemplate the alternative.