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U.K.: Battered Blair Fights Off Opposition Within His Labour Party

British Prime Minister Tony Blair resolutely defended his policies, including on Iraq, at an annual conference of his Labour Party. In spite of obvious opposition to his policies, Blair was rewarded by a seven-minute standing ovation. RFE/RL correspondent Jan Jun reports that it seems that, for the time being, he has managed to fight off opponents within his party.

London, 1 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "Fearless, battered but defiant, bold, imaginative, persuasive, triumphal."

Those were some of the words British media and experts used to describe Prime Minister Tony Blair's eagerly awaited Labour Party conference speech in the British city of Bournemouth.

Blair covered a wide range of domestic issues and mapped out his government's achievements over the past six years in power.

He stressed he would not yield to criticism from the left wing of his party and various pressure groups. He firmly reminded the party of its achievements in office and that being in government is more difficult than being in opposition.

Blair has come under increasing criticism for his decision to back the U.S. in the war on Iraq. That position had become harder to defend, in the eyes of many, since no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. The WMD issue was one of the main arguments Blair used in taking Britain to war. The issue was later compounded by the apparent suicide of British weapons inspector David Kelly.

On Iraq, Blair was unrepentant: "Iraq has divided the international community, it has divided the party, the country, families, friends. And I know many people are disappointed and hurt and angry. I know many believe profoundly that the action we took was wrong, and I do not, at all, disrespect anyone who disagrees with me. I just ask one thing -- attack my decision but at least understand why I took it and why I would take the same decision again."

He then reminded the conference of why he has been a staunch ally of the United States.

"Why do I stay fighting to keep in there with America on one hand and Europe on the other?" he asked. "Because I know terrorism cannot be defeated unless America and Europe work together. And it is not so much American unilateralism I fear, it's isolation. It is walking away when we need America there engaged in the world. Fighting to get world trade opened up. Fighting to give hope to Africa. Changing its position for the future of the world, on climate change."

Blair told the party delegates that he has no intention of backtracking, no "reverse gear."

"I can only go one way, I've not got a reverse gear," he says. "And the time to trust a politician most is not when they are taking the easy option, any politician can do the popular things -- I know I used to do a few of them. And I know it's hard for people to keep faith and some of the people may have a different take on me, but I have the same take on them. I trust their decency, I trust their innate good sense. And I know I am the same person I always was -- older, tougher, and more experienced, but basically the same person, believing in the same things."

The reaction of the delegates was unexpectedly positive. Blair was not only interrupted a number of times by applause, but after he ended he was rewarded by a seven-minute-long standing ovation.

The reactions of British politicians and media were also generally supportive.

Blair's Health Secretary Charles Clarke told the media after the speech that he saw it as "a serious rebuttal of all those commentators who said [the Labour] party was against him."

Charles Jenkins is a director at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London. He tells RFE/RL that the reaction of the delegates indicates Blair has stronger support in his party than it seemed. He stresses, however, that Blair still has work to do.

"And what Tony Blair has got to do in the end, of course, is not just convince a majority of delegates to a party conference -- if he genuinely succeeded in doing that, and that still remains to be seen, as we move on to subsequent days of the debate. But if he wants to stay in office, he's got to convince the country at large, and there is a lot of distrust."

So, despite the obvious success of his speech, Blair is not out of the woods yet.