Image: British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Graeme Robertson  /  Getty Images
Prime Minister Tony Blair delivers his keynote speech at the Labour Party Annual Conference Tuesday in Brighton, England.
By Jennifer Carlile Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 9/28/2004 7:06:26 PM ET 2004-09-28T23:06:26

“Here we are again .. my toughest week yet since the last one ... and before the next one,” said the ever-embattled but resolute British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the start of a speech aimed at drawing attention away from Iraq and toward his campaign for a third term in office.

Blair was addressing his Labour Party on Tuesday at what will likely be its final party conference before the next election, expected to be held in May 2005.

The relentless violence in Iraq and fears over the fate of a British hostage have weighed heavily on this week’s conference in Brighton, on England’s south coast.

Blair began by expressing his “support and solidarity” for British hostage Kenneth Bigley and for the families of the latest British casualties in Iraq — two soldiers killed in the southern city of Basra on Tuesday.

Bickering within the party and a huge demonstration against a government bid to ban fox hunting — that included topless swimmers in the waters off Brighton’s promenade and animal carcasses dumped near the conference venue — have also drawn headlines away from Blair’s goals.

With polls showing Labour losing ground to the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, Blair aimed to re-energize his constituency with a 10-point agenda, and attempted to tackle the issue of Iraq “head-on.”

“The problem is I can apologize for the information (on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction) that turned out to be wrong, but I can’t, sincerely at least, apologize for removing Saddam,” he said.

Meeting generates little buzz
Nick Pearce, director for the Institute for Public Policy research, said from the conference that the mood "has been quite restrained; there isn’t a huge buzz to the place.”

Image: Purported image of British hostage Kenneth Bigley.
AP
An image purportedly showing British hostage Kenneth Bigley, who was kidnapped in Iraq, pleading for Blair to help save his life. The image was taken from a videotape posted on a militant Web site last week.
“It’s a mix of Iraq, Ken Bigley and just this general issue of how long they’ve been in power,” the analyst said.

The Labour party swept to power in 1997 after 18 years in the opposition and has stayed there longer than any past Labour government.

“So here we are facing the possibility unique in our 100-year history, of governing Britain for a third successive term," Blair noted.

Bread-and-butter issues
Pearce said Blair tried to re-energize the party for another term with his 10-point agenda:

“These are the bread-and-butter issues for working families … universal child care, pensions, helping people with their housing costs ... addressing people's everyday concerns so they can get help balancing family and working life.”

While citing the government’s successes in creating a stable economy, low unemployment and investment in public services, Blair repeated that more could be done: "For all the progress, life is still tough for hard-working families."

Also speaking from conference, Steven Everts, a senior research fellow for the Center for European Reform, said that although the Labour party is not faring as well in the polls as it previously has, the party is doing as well as can be expected as it looks toward a third term.

“After seven years in power you will have annoyed a lot of people —  I would have expected Labour to be far behind — but instead the opposition is still even further behind,” Everts said.

While recent surveys have varied greatly, most have shown Labour with a slight lead. A widely quoted poll conducted by Communicate Research for this week’s Independent on Sunday newspaper showed Labour receiving 32 percent of the vote, the Conservatives receiving 30 percent and the Liberal Democrats receiving 27 percent.

Blair confronts Iraq issue
Blair was forced to pause twice during his speech due to demonstrators shouting antiwar protests from the floor of the conference. “You’ve got blood on your hands,” one yelled.

While Blair laughed off the intrusions, saying, “You can make your protest. Just thank goodness we live in a democracy and you can,” their calls echoed the feelings of many Britons, including some members of Blair’s own party.

Conference delegates are expected to debate two resolutions on Iraq on Thursday, including one that calls for the early pullout of British troops.

Only 38 percent of Britons believe the war in Iraq was justified, according to a YouGov poll compiled for the Guardian earlier this month, compared with 66 percent who supported the war when the U.S.-led coalition swept into Baghdad in the April 2003.

U.S. and BritainAnd while across the Atlantic President Bush’s ratings have been on the rise since the Republican Convention, only 29 percent of Britons would like to see Bush return to the White House. More than half — 52 percent — prefer democratic hopeful John Kerry over Bush, according to a Populus poll released by London’s Times newspaper on Tuesday.

Bush’s unpopularity here won’t hurt him in America, but Blair’s close ties to the Republican president aren’t helping his bid for a third term.

“I know this issue (of Iraq) has divided the country," Blair said.  "I entirely understand why many disagree.

“I know, too, that as people see me struggling with it, they think he's stopped caring about us; or worse he's just pandering to George Bush,  and what's more in a cause that's irrelevant to us.”

Blair said he saw the war in Iraq as integral to a new war on global terrorism that emerged with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Blair pledged to make reviving the Middle East peace process a personal priority once the U.S. elections had concluded in November.

“It is very important, especially for an international audience to recognize, that the biggest applause was heard after (Blair) said a political solution for Israel and Palestine had to be resolved,” said Everts.

“It’s very noticeable that from Blair, the party, and the country, that Israel-Palestine is probably the single biggest thing we can do to undermine the recruiting base of Islamic fundamentalists; Iraq isn’t really central in the war on terror,” Everts said.

Thousands protest fox-hunting ban
Adding to the issues Blair must confront, thousands of fox hunting supporters descended on the seaside resort to protest government attempts to ban the sport.

Image: Pro-hunting demonstrators in Brighton.
Stephen Hird  /  REUTERS
Demonstrators protesting a possible ban on fox hunting gather with their dogs outside the Labour party conference in Brighton, England, on Tuesday.

One dead horse and two dead calves were dumped at sites close to the conferenceshortly before the start of the pro-hunting rally.

It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the incident, but it was widely interpreted as a symbol of rural anger toward Blair.

But Everts predicted a third term for the prime minister.

“A lot of people believe in Blair — he was utterly convincing in saying there’s still a big job to do, and that’s why I think he’ll win another term.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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