updated 9/26/2006 10:49:07 AM ET 2006-09-26T14:49:07

Prime Minister Tony Blair faced his party for the last time as its leader on Tuesday, insisting Labour can win a fourth term, but admitting it won’t be easy.

Delegates, grateful for the three straight election victories that the party has enjoyed under Blair, cheered and waved supportive placards reading “Too young to retire” and “Tony, you made Britain better” as he took the stage.

Blair said last year that he would not run again; last month, he said he’d be stepping down within the year.

“The truth is, you can’t go on forever. that’s why it is right that this is my last conference as leader,” Blair said in his speech.

He also thanked the party for “the extraordinary privilege of leading you these past 12 years.”

“I know I look a lot older, that’s what being leader of the Labour Party does to you. Actually, looking around, some of you look a lot older. That’s what having me as leader of the Labour Party does to you,” he joked.

Blair offered warm praise for Treasury chief Gordon Brown, the man expected to succeed him in office, but stopped short of endorsing him. He said Labour would never have won its three terms without Brown’s contributions, but acknowledged their relationship had been strained at times.

“In no relationship at the top of any walk of life is it always easy, least of all in politics,” he said. “(Brown) is a remarkable man, a remarkable servant to this country. And that is the truth.”

'This is a changed country'
He recalled his entry into politics as a young candidate for Parliament in 1983 and recited a litany of his government’s accomplishments since Labour took power in 1997. The audience was rapt and frequently interrupted him with cheers.

Blair said Labour had built a strong economy for Britain, reduced child poverty and allowed gay couples to form civil partnerships. Free entry to many museums, a smoking ban and winning the 2012 Olympics for London also were on his list of achievements.

“Take a step back and be proud,” he told his party. “This is a changed country.”

Labour, he said, had so succeeded in changing British politics that the opposition Conservative Party has moved away from the right and toward the center in response, he said.

“Don’t lose heart from that,” Blair said. “Take heart from it. We have changed the terms of political debate.”

The address came a day after Brown strengthened his claim to the top job with a self-confident speech that gave the clearest picture yet of what kind of leader he would be.

He set out a centrist vision that suggested he agreed with Blair’s view that Labour must stay focused on moderate voters to retain power. But he also sought support from the party’s left with declarations of his commitment to core Labour values like social justice and fighting poverty.

Brown believed to be growing impatient
Brown has denied he was behind a party rebellion that forced Blair to promise on Sept. 7 to resign within a year, but most believe he has been growing impatient for the prime minister to step aside so he can take office.

Blair has not set a precise date for his departure. But because Labour won a majority in elections last year, if Brown is chosen as party leader, he will become prime minister without having to face voters until elections expected in 2009.

Brown praised Blair effusively, calling him a visionary leader, but acknowledged their long political relationship has had its ups and downs.

“Where over these years differences have been a distraction from what matters, I regret that and I know Tony does too,” Brown said Monday.

He echoed Blair’s call for Labour to stop obsessing about its internal politics and focus on policies that matter to Britons.

“The only reason any of us are here is that we are in politics as servants of the people,” Brown said.

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