msnbc.com
updated 9/28/2004 7:03:32 PM ET 2004-09-28T23:03:32

Prime Minister Tony Blair emerged from the toughest Labor Party conference of his career relatively unscathed on Thursday. With his party members and the British public divided over the war in Iraq, Blair acknowledged that "this is a testing time," but assured his followers that "the time is for renewal, not retreat."

The annual conference coincided with the worst crisis of Blair's six-year term. The once bright new face of British politics, and victor of a landslide election, opened his keynote speech Tuesday saying, "I now look my age."

The failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has undermined the premier's principal rationale for going to war, and the high-profile Hutton inquiry into the suicide of a top weapons expert has heightened suspicion over the government's possible manipulation of intelligence.

Although domestic issues and the state of the U.K. economy usually interest voters more than foreign policy, "with the questions over Iraq's weapons, the difficulties the coalition is experiencing, and the Hutton inquiry, there is a broader disenchantment with the government," said Steven Everts, Senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform.

Scoffing at the premier's chosen catch phrase, "Trust me," 64 percent of the electorate no longer trusts Blair according to an ICM poll published Sunday in the News of the World.

With banners reading "Bliar," and "No more war, no more lies," 20,000 demonstrators gathered in London to protest the occupation of Iraq a day before the conference kicked off on Sunday, in Bournemouth, southern England.

No apology for Iraq war
On the podium Tuesday, Blair acknowledged the problems facing his government but did not apologize for his decision to align Britain with the United States in the war against Saddam Hussein's regime.

"Iraq has divided the international community. It has divided the party, the country, families, friends. ... I ask just one thing: attack my decision but at least understand why I took it and why I would take the same decision again."

In response to critics who have accused the premier of blindly following President Bush he said, "And if [terrorism] is the threat of the 21st century, Britain should be in there helping confront it, not because we are America's poodle, but because dealing with it will make Britain safer."
Blair promised to march forward, saying "We who started the war must finish the peace," and "we don't have a reverse gear."

With personal anecdotes about his constituents, he drew attention away from Iraq and toward improvements made at home. And despite his critics, Blair received a seven minute standing ovation following his speech.

"Certainly [Blair's] reputation and the level of trust in him have been bolstered by this conference," said Beatrice Stern, press officer for the Institute for Public Policy Research. "His speech was honest, with a degree of humility and charisma."

"Blair and [Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon] Brown talked about policies that are hard to stomach, but proved that they follow their ideals," she said.

Everts, the Senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform, predicted that Blair's ratings would improve following the conference.

"He's done enough to regain some of the people he lost but it's not the beginning of a new love affair between Blair and British people," he said.

Emergency Iraq motion denied
On Wednesday, Iraq became the target of a three-hour debate entitled, "Britain and the World." But an emergency motion to declare the war unjust and call for British troops to come home was staved off by party officials.

Some party members, mainly backbench lawmakers and grass-root members, assailed Blair for joining the U.S.-led war without explicit U.N. backing.

Why are we, a British Labor government with a very large parliamentary majority ... so signed up to the ultra right-wing George Bush?" asked left wing lawmaker Jeremy Corbyn.

But other party members, including three government ministers, spoke out in defense of the war.

"The majority focused on the fact that they are glad Saddam is not in power anymore," Stern said from the conference hall. She added that the atmosphere was cordial though "not one of elation."

In spite of the backlash against the war and the government's failure to garner support for its hospital reforms, Blair left the conference Thursday with little threat to his premiership.

The Labor Party has retained a nine-point lead over the Conservatives, according to a MORI poll published in the Financial Times over the weekend. And although the Liberal Democrats have made some headway, they continue to trail the two main parties.

Competition from within
As Blair looks toward the next election, slated for 2005, the only competition he is likely to face comes from within his own party.

Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Blair's long-time chief partner and rival, was accused by the British media of parading his claim to succeed Blair. In what the media widely called the best speech of his career, Brown focused on the differences between Blair's centrist approach and his own, as he aimed to gain support from traditional Labor followers at the conference.

Newspapers counted the 64 times he used the word "Labor" without mentioning "new Labor", the party description synonymous with Blair. A headline in the Guardian read: "Bold Brown edges away from Blair," and The Times wrote: "Brown pushes his loyalty to the limit." The hype continued when Blair failed to mention the chancellor in his speech.

Blair was never wholly liked by the Labor party, "but after 18 years in the wilderness, in the opposition, they were thankful he got them into power," said Evert.

Many in the Labor Party think on the whole Blair is taking too much of a right wing approach to policy issues, but they know a return to old Labor could mean electoral suicide," he said.

Already the longest serving Labor leader in Britain's history, 50-year-old Blair's charisma "will win the next election for Labor, not Brown's," Evert said.

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