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Katherine Baldwin, Adrian Croft26 Sep 2006 18:23
British Prime Minister Tony Blair urged followers on Tuesday to put aside squabbles over who succeeds him and focus on winning the next election in an emotional farewell speech to his party.
Blair defended the centrist policies he has followed in nine years in power but said the party had to face up to challenges such as climate change, organised crime and terrorism as he addressed the Labour Party’s annual conference for the last time as leader.
He called for a healing of divisions that rocked the party this month when a rebellion by Labour legislators forced Blair to pledge to step down within a year.
“The truth is you can’t go on forever. That’s why it’s right that this is my last conference as leader,” Blair said.
“I will try to help build a unified party with a strong platform for the only legacy that has ever mattered to me—a fourth-term election victory that allows us to keep on changing Britain for the better,” he said.
Blair has been Labour’s most successful leader, driving them to three successive election victories.
However, his popularity in the country has waned over his commitment to the United States-led war on Iraq, his policies in the Middle East and his pro-market reforms.
Blair praised Finance Minister Gordon Brown, his expected successor but with whom he has a difficult relationship, but stopped short of endorsing him as future leader.
Brown gave a confident speech to the rally on Monday but criticism of him by party members and poor opinion poll showings against the resurgent Conservatives under new leader David Cameron have raised the chance he could face a heavyweight challenger for Blair’s job.
A general election is at least three years away.
Blair was rewarded with a rousing send-off as the party rank-and-file put aside their past criticisms to give him a seven-minute standing ovation.
Blair urged the party to adopt an updated form of his reformist “New Labour” philosophy.
But in a coded warning to avoid damaging divisions, Blair urged Labour to focus on winning elections, saying he had hated the party’s days in the political wilderness in the 1980s.
Labour hoped the Manchester rally would draw a line under infighting over the succession but a reported slur by Blair’s wife Cherie against Brown broke a fragile truce on Monday.
A news agency report said she had accused Brown of lying when praising Blair on Monday, although she denied saying it.
Blair drew roars of laughter from the packed conference hall by joking that at least he would never have to worry about his wife running off with the man who lives next door.
Brown lives next to the Blairs in Downing Street in London.
Referring to the party rift over the leadership, Blair said: “I want to heal.
Labour MP Angela Eagle praised Blair’s speech. “It was just what the party needed. We will miss him but we also know that in politics times change and things move on.”
Labour Party member Yasmin Qureshi (42) said Blair would be a “hard act to follow”.
“But that doesn’t mean to say that Gordon couldn’t be a good leader and prime minister,” she said.—Reuters
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