updated 9/27/2006 11:47:43 AM ET 2006-09-27T15:47:43

Former President Bill Clinton sought Wednesday to boost Britain’s badly divided Labour Party, warning supporters not to let it suffer the same fate as America’s defeated Democrats.

Delegates at Labour’s annual conference gave a celebrity’s welcome to a leader they love far better than President Bush, who is widely despised in the party. Clinton charmed a packed auditorium with a 40-minute speech in which he lavished praise on Prime Minister Tony Blair and Treasury chief Gordon Brown, Blair’s likely successor.

In a reference to the political damage Blair had suffered at home because of his relationship with Bush, Clinton thanked him for maintaining Britain’s alliance with the United States “through quite a lot of storm as well as occasional sunshine.”

He said that because Labour had been so successful in strengthening Britain’s economy and modernizing its society, there was a danger that voters would assume the improvements were “just a part of the landscape” and that any party that came to power would make similar choices.

“I have been there,” he said, recalling that his administration had cut the U.S. deficit drastically, only to watch it balloon under Bush. “I say that to remind you that it can change quickly.”

With the departing Blair, Labour’s most successful leader ever, the party faces a potentially perilous future. Infighting has tarnished its image and the opposition Conservative Party is surging after nearly a decade in the doldrums.

A fierce party rebellion forced Blair to announce Sept. 7 that he will quit within a year. He warned the party to stop its internal battles or risk being punished at the polls in his emotional final conference speech Tuesday.

Some Labour backers worry that Brown, who lacks Blair’s charm and polish, will be unable to beat back the conservative young Tory leader David Cameron. But a battle to keep the finance minister from getting the top job could be divisive.

Praise for Labour Party
Clinton told the delegates they should be proud of all they’d done to change Britain.

“Your prime minister, his government, your party, have been a stunning success,” he said, praising Labour for creating jobs and leading the way internationally on fighting poverty and global warming. “None of this is an accident.”

He argued that the party would always have to change its policies to keep up in a fast-moving world, and urged them not to let themselves be cast as supporters of the status quo while their opponents are seen as advocates of change.

Delegate Christopher Wellbelove, a local council member in south London, said Clinton’s reminder of the Democrats’ defeat by Bush and his Republicans was chilling.

“We got a very clear warning that if we don’t stick together, we could lose everything” and give the Tories a shot at winning elections expected in 2009. “It can all be taken away.”

‘We need you to lead’
He said Clinton’s speech made Labour nostalgic for the years when it was glad to see Blair build a close relationship with an American leader. Many in the party have been infuriated by Blair’s alliance with Bush, particularly on the Iraq war, an issue Clinton didn’t mention.

“Everybody kind of wishes he was still president,” Wellbelove said.

Clinton spoke warmly of both Blair and Brown, saying they had put Britain at the forefront of anti-poverty efforts and the fight against climate change, issues the former president has pushed since he left the White House.

“We need you to lead the rest of the world,” he said.

Clinton didn’t mention the bickering at home over whether he or Bush missed more opportunities to prevent the Sept. 11 terror attacks, but made clear he differed with his successor’s approach to foreign policy.

“Since we can’t kill, jail or occupy all of our enemies ... we also have to spend some time and money making more and more partners and fewer enemies,” he said. “It is so much cheaper to alleviate poverty, put kids in school, fight disease ... in a poor country than it is to fight a war. ... If you spend a little money on this, you get a big return.”

He praised Brown for his “brilliant economic leadership” and “brilliant vision of the future,” but did not endorse him. He said as he left the conference that he stood by his recent comment that Brown would be a good prime minister.

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