TONY Blair makes the most important conference speech of his ten-year leadership this afternoon with yesterday's rousing words from Chancellor Gordon Brown still hanging in the air.

The Chancellor wowed Labour's annual conference in Bournemouth with a speech underlining his commitment to the party's traditional values.

He finished by stealing from last year's speech by Mr Blair, saying the Labour Party was "best when we are boldest, best when we are united, best when we are Labour".

The lack of the word "new" before 'Labour' - as Mr Blair would have said - sent commentators wild with speculation over whether Mr Brown was sending a coded message to delegates that he had the true interests of the party at heart.

Yet in another passage concerning the war in Iraq, Mr Brown paid steadfast tribute to "our leader Tony Blair".

It was, though, his firm emphasis on the party's long-standing values that earned him a two-minute standing ovation.

Mr Blair was absent, attending the funeral of the late Leader of the Lords, Lord Williams of Mostyn QC, and so unable to hear the 2,500 trade union members protesting outside Bournemouth's International Conference Centre protesting about manufacturing job losses and the war - their banners referred to the Sedgefield MP as "Bomber Blair".

Mr Blair gets his turn today. He will somehow have to reconnect with his party, which is deeply concerned that he is dragging it too far from his roots.

But at the same time, he will have to convince delegates that his controversial reforms - over foundation hospitals and university tuition fees - are the right way forward. He will also address the issue of Iraq and may even receive some heckling from the floor.

However, last night commentators also noted that he had heeded his lesson about spin - there was none of the traditional pre-speech briefing about what he was expected to say. Which left just Mr Brown's words to analyse. Earlier in the day, the Chancellor brushed aside questions about the alleged succession deal with Mr Blair by insisting that he would never talk about his "private conversations" with the Prime Minister.

But he told the delegates: "Where we have succeeded in our first six years of government, where we have built a bond of trust with the British people, and where we will succeed in the future, it is by demonstrating the strength to take the long-term decisions, it is by being honest with the British people about the direction and challenges ahead, and it is by taking the Labour road often the hard road - being true to our Labour values."

* Last night, bookmakers William Hill shortened the odds on Mr Brown being the next Labour leader. It put him at even money favourite for the job, shortened from 11/10.