Charlie Whelan says . . .

Don't believe it - "Labour must keep Tony Blair"

I watched the Prime Minister's speech on television, ensconced in a Brighton pub with hunt protesters. Scattered around the bar were unread copies of the Daily Telegraph conference special, which told us what Labour needed to do in order to win the next election. The best and brightest columnists were more or less unanimous that new Labour needed to keep Tony Blair on as leader. When top Tories make it clear that they want the PM to stay, you have to think that Labour might be better off without him.

Certainly, Blair's speech didn't make activists think they couldn't do without him. Indeed, he got the longest applause for his thanks to Gordon Brown. And, for the first time in years, it was Brown, not Blair, who won the big speech battle.

Apart from half-apologising for the Iraq war, Blair announced the ten main points for Labour's manifesto. We might then ask: "What is the point of Alan Milburn?"

It was the appointment of the ex-Trot MP to run Labour's election campaign that dominated political gossip in Brighton. I did not meet one delegate, MP or union leader who thought that Blair's snub to Brown was a good idea. When Milburn made a direct attack on Brown after his unifying speech to conference, I was reliably told that even Blair himself began to regret the appointment.

Apart from Telegraph columnists, hardly anyone in Brighton said that Blair was a vote-winner. He has unnecessarily upset the best chancellor Labour has ever had, taken Britain to war on the basis of a lie, and even made people sympathise with fox-hunters. To be honest, I was tempted to don my green wellies and join them.

Who knows, the woman in the pub who said, "They'll ban fishing next" could be right.

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Muslim is not a dirty word