Blair battles to stay on course

The British leader asked his party Tuesday to stand fast despite rifts over Iraq and over domestic policy.

The Labour Party's annual conferences can be tepid affairs. But this year's seaside shindig marked the climax of some gripping political theater in Britain as Prime Minister Tony Blair launched an emotional defense of his leadership, protesters brandished "Bliar" banners at him, and seditious talk rippled in the party ranks. Even the sea was agitated.

Besieged by furious opponents of his Iraq campaign, criticized for some of his domestic policies, and threatened by whispers of a challenge to his position, Mr. Blair based his much-anticipated annual speech on an appeal for unity to keep himself and his party in power until the end of the decade.

In the unusually long address Tuesday, Blair, full of contrition and humility, confessed to feeling "battered," acknowledged that his government had gone through a "rough patch" and declared himself ready to listen more when formulating policy.

"I know the old top-down approach won't work any more," he said. "I know I can't say, 'I am the leader, follow me' - not that that was your strong point anyway," he quipped.

Still, Blair stuck to his guns on Iraq, insisting that intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction was compelling, even though the failure to find any WMD in Iraq has raised questions about the motives for war and the credibility of the Blair government.

And the prime minister said he would not backtrack on key domestic reforms that have offended some supporters: private hospitals, higher fees for students, a tougher approach on asylum and crime, and a national ID card to combat fraud.

Blair has led the Labour Party for almost a decade, but it is currently deeply divided over the Iraq war, which was bitterly opposed by many in the Labour movement, and domestic reform, which was considered by some to be a betrayal of Labour's left-of-center ideals.

The party is crucially important to Blair: The electorate does not get to vote on his record for another two years, but a disaffected party could throw him out in weeks if they decide he has had his day, as the Conservatives did to Margaret Thatcher in 1990.

And the signs have not been good recently. Recent polls show two-thirds of the public no longer trust Blair, while almost half want him to quit. They also show Labour's own popularity slumping. Last month, the party lost a parliamentary seat in a by-election.

Some union leaders and activists have started muttering darkly about "regime change." Many have anointed Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown as leader in waiting, enthusing openly at Brown's conference speech, which called for a restoration of traditional Labour values.

"The chancellor really reached out to the mood in the party," says Mal Reeves, a party worker from South Wales. "It was a very good speech that wanted to reconnect with the membership," he adds, calling for the prime minister to do the same.

Blair's solemn, hour-long discourse brought raptures from the floor, and coos of "terrific" and "fabulous" from animated Blair supporters. "I've got blisters on my hands," beamed one delegate after a seven-minute ovation that was more like the reaction to a rock-concert encore than to a political speech.

"He made the party electable," says Soran Hourami, an Iraqi Kurd who has been a Labour Party member for 10 years. "He is a good prime minister."

But not everyone was gushing.

"I was disappointed because I was opposed to the war, and he didn't sufficiently deal with that issue and didn't show an understanding of the depths of anger people feel," says Val Graham, a former Labour Party councilor and party member for 20 years.

"I don't think what Tony Blair said today will convince people," she says, adding that there was a strong move to create a bloc on the left of the party as a bulwark against the leader's dominance.

Even some of Blair's allies were unsure that he had done enough. Tim Allan, formerly Blair's deputy press chief, said the address was deliberately low-key and folksy, an unusual departure from the normal tub-thumping rallying cry issued from conference platforms. But it may have been missing a key ingredient, he said. "He might have persuaded some people that he's not a liar, that he acted on the right motives and in an honorable way on Iraq, and won back some trust, which is vital for opinion polls," Allan says. "But did he win voters over? No. And did he persuade people on Iraq? No."

In the past, British Labour governments have effectively defeated themselves through internal fighting. This time around, tight discipline under the leader has ensured a record period in office - more than six years. But now, with talk of a schism surfacing, the prime minister wants his party to reaffirm its allegiance to his leadership.

Many MPs know they owe their jobs to Blair. He was the leader exuding trustworthiness, conviction, and passion who assured Labour huge, successive election wins, guaranteeing candidates their seats in Parliament. But now, rank and file MPs say the leader needs to listen more - or risk alienating support.

"If we are going to win a third term, we need to ensure that ordinary members of the party have a say in our policies and have a say in where we might have got it wrong," says Tony Coleman, a Labour MP.

Though Iraq has been an emotive issue for a year, it is domestic issues that people really care about, Labourites say. "Iraq isn't an issue that is brought up" in consultations with constituents, says Reeves. "I would say four or five people have contacted the office on it, when 40 people come in every week about the bread-and-butter issues."

Adds Coleman: "For my constituents local issues matter more." He was referring to policies like charging students thousands of pounds for tuition fees, or a controversial move to partly privatize top hospitals.

Labour delegates voted down the hospitals policy Wednesday, arguing it would create a two-tier health system. But the leadership signaled it would push ahead with the plan anyway.

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