Labour delegates are leaving Manchester today with a spring in their step, after a conference that most agreed had put the party back on course.
After weeks of back-stabbing, dismal polls and speculation about the prime minister’s future, fighting talk from Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Prescott and others sent them off to campaign for next May’s devolved elections with new enthusiasm.
Giving his analysis to reporters this afternoon, Mr Blair said this year’s party conference was always going to be “strange” given the concerns about his leadership.
But he noted: “The interesting thing about conference this week is that we set out a very strong policy agenda for the future of the country.”
He said: “We’ve ended the week in a stronger position as a government and as a political party.I’m sure the speculation will continue but I will keep to what I said at the beginning of the week and concentrate on the country.”
Mr Blair’s refusal to talk about who might succeed him was adopted by most of the cabinet, and as such the party conference was an unexpectedly united affair.
“I’ve been to lots of these party conferences and I don’t think we’ve ever come out feeling so united,” said David Green, a delegate from Delyn in Wales.
Councillor Abdul Jilani, of Ellesmere Port and Nesten, added: “I was not very confident but now I’m very enthusiastic that we can win the fourth term.”
“We really wanted unity and to be pulled together, but it hasn’t just been about that – there’s also been enormous substance,” said Horsham delegate Alison Cornell.
Home secretary John Reid’s speech this morning was seen as a potential bid for the top job, as was education secretary Alan Johnson’s yesterday, and Mr Brown clearly stated his claim in an address on Monday.
Barring Mr Prescott’s announcement last night that he would back Mr Brown – and Cherie Blair’s contribution on Monday, when she apparently dismissed the chancellor as a “liar” – the leadership question has not dominated as many feared it would.
“The most important thing is that what we’ve got is a party that does have at least three or four men who certainly, I feel as a delegate, could take this party forward,” Ms Cornell, the delegate from Horsham, told politics.co.uk.
“We do actually have a choice and that’s a future for the Labour party.”
Pamela Jones, from Sheffield Central CLP, admitted that “none of the obvious candidates have convinced me yet”, but seemed happy to make her mind up when a leadership election actually takes place.
For most delegates, the most pressing matter is that Mr Brown not be allowed to take over without a proper contest – something that is now highly unlikely.
“I think there should be more than one name on the ballot this time as a matter of principle,” said John Grigg from Hammersmith CLP.
For his part, Delyn delegate Mr Green insisted the leadership question was for the future, and was not the aim of this week’s conference.
“We had a job to do this week which wasn’t about the leadership, it was about bringing ourselves together and licking our wounds a bit but also then trying to move on and say we’ve got things to do. I think we’ve done that,” he said.