London, 29 September 2004 -- Speaking to hundreds of delegates and leaders at the ruling Labour Party's annual conference in the seaside resort city of Brighton, Prime Minister Blair presented new domestic initiatives, while summing up his government's social and economic achievements. He also admitted problems of trust and credibility after two terms in government, as well as divisions within the party and the country over the war in Iraq.
Blair also spoke of the party's chances of governing Britain for a third successive term. "Never done it before, never debated it before, never imagined it before. Progressive parties like the Labour Party rarely fail because of their values," he said. "Fairness, justice, solidarity, opportunity for all -- these are the impulses of any decent human spirit. No, we almost always fail when we don't foresee the future in which those values must be applied."
In his speech -- called one of the most important of his career -- Blair urged the Labour Party to unite in the face of continuing problems of trust and credibility.
The speech coincided with an opinion poll in which 64 percent of voters think Blair has not been a good leader. The same number, however, still prefer Blair to the leader of the Conservative opposition, Michael Howard.
Blair cited his government's economic achievements, including low unemployment and continuing economic growth. He also praised the chancellor of the exchequer, or Britain's finance minister, Gordon Brown, who is seen as Blair's main rival for the party's leadership.
"The problem is that I can apologize for the information that turned out to be wrong, but I can't -- sincerely at least -- apologize for removing Saddam." -- Blair
Blair devoted a significant part of his speech to divisions in the country -- and within his own party -- over Britain's involvement in Iraq. He said he acknowledges and accepts that evidence about Saddam Hussein having stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons had turned out to be wrong. Yet he stopped short of apologizing for taking the country to war.
"The problem is that I can apologize for the information that turned out to be wrong, but I can't -- sincerely at least -- apologize for removing Saddam," he said, adding that "the world is a better place with Saddam in prison, not in power."
Blair explained his reasons for continuing Britain's involvement in Iraq. "[Terrorists] are not provoked by our actions, but by our existence," he said. "They are in Iraq for the very reason we should be -- they have chosen this battleground because they know success for us in Iraq is not success for America or Britain, or even Iraq itself, but for the values and the way of life democracy represents."
Blair's speech was twice interrupted by protesters -- once by those opposed to the war in Iraq, once by opponents of a proposed law banning fox hunting.
Reactions in Britain to Blair's speech show that, while considered an emotional and well-prepared appeal, it is seen as having done little to heal the rifts within the party and the country.
David Baker, a senior lecturer at the University of Warwick, said that Blair is "rather like [former British Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher, but in a stronger position than she was when she lost power. That is, he is hugely respected, I think, but not liked, and not necessarily always trusted. The problem is that his opponents are not trusted either, particularly the Conservatives."
Baker said Blair may have actually strengthened his position by remaining stubborn on Iraq.
"One might disagree with him on everything that he did over Saddam, or on his pro-European stance. But, on the other hand, this man actually has risked a third term in government for an extremely risky military adventure with the Americans, and it certainly isn't something that one would take on in order to win votes and hearts and minds, either in Britain or around the world."
Baker said that Blair, in his speech, was talking not just to the conference delegates.
"He was talking to the nation," Baker said. "All politicians at the moment are addressing the nation in the run-up to the election, which will probably come early next year."
Whether Blair has done enough to strengthen his party's leadership position could be revealed as early as tomorrow. That's when the conference may vote on a nonbinding motion proposed by an anti-Blair grouping that urges the government to withdraw British troops from Iraq.