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UK Politics

Blair comes out fighting

Prime Minister Tony Blair today urged his party to put aside its differences over Iraq and seize the chance of an historic third term in power.

The Prime Minister, twice interrupted by protesters, told Labour's conference in Brighton he would not apologise for ousting Saddam Hussein from power, while acknowledging mistakes were made in the run–up to war.

But he appealed to delegates: "Whatever disagreements we have had, (we) should unite in our determination to stand by the Iraqi people until the job is done."

He unveiled a ten point manifesto pledge to take his party into the next election, appealing to activists: "Let's get out and do it."

The Prime Minister defended his focus on foreign policy, saying: "It's not that I care more about foreign affairs than the state of our economy, NHS, schools or crime.

"It's simply that I believe democracy there means security here and that if I don't care and act on this terrorist threat then the day will come when all our good work on the issues that decide people's lives will be undone because the stability on which our economy, in an era of globalisation, depends will vanish."

As the Premier began his address, he was interrupted by a shout of: "You have got blood on your hands."

Mr Blair hit back: "That's fine, sir. You can make your protest. Just thank goodness we live in a democracy and you can."

After he was interrupted a second time, the Premier said: "Excuse me, but if there's any more of you, do you mind standing up now?"

The Premier went on to deliver his rallying cry, saying: "Here we are, facing the possibility unique in our 100–year history of governing Britain for a third successive term.

"Never done it before, never debated it before, never imagined it before."

He defended his Government's record on domestic issues and highlighted Scottish and Welsh devolution and progress on peace in Northern Ireland.

But Mr Blair conceded government was "so tough" because life was "still tough for many hardworking families".

He heaped praise on Chancellor Gordon Brown and Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, saying: "Gordon and John, the one a personal friend for 20 years and the best Chancellor this country has ever had and the other the strongest, most loyal deputy any leader could ever wish for."

The Prime Minister turned briefly to the Liberal Democrats and the Tories, saying he could not take Charles Kennedy's party seriously and accusing the Conservatives of still being stained by their record in office of recession, high mortgage rates and mass unemployment.

In his 55 minute speech, Mr Blair promised to maintain low mortgage rates, give a boost to vocational education, allow parents the choice of a good specialist school and also promised patients would be able to choose which NHS hospital they wanted to be treated in.

He also flagged up initiatives on childcare, offering all parents the chance for their youngsters to be cared for from 8am to 6pm in schools.

The Prime Minister dismissed speculation that he had wanted to put aside discussion of Iraq, saying: "That was never my intention. I want to deal with it head on."

He told delegates: "The evidence about Saddam having actual biological and chemical weapons, as opposed to the capability to develop them, has turned out to be wrong.

"I acknowledge that and accept it."

But he went on: "The problem is I can apologise for the information that turned out to be wrong but I can't, sincerely at least, apologise for removing Saddam.

"The world is a better place with Saddam in prison, not in power."

He acknowledged the issue had divided the country and said he understood why many disagreed with him.

Mr Blair added: "Do I know I'm right? Judgments aren't the same as facts. Instinct is not science. I'm like any other human being, as fallible and as capable of being wrong.

"I only know what I believe."

Mr Blair conceded: "Salvation will not come solely from a gunship. Military action will be futile unless we address the conditions in which this terrorism breeds and the causes it preys upon."

He pledged to make the revival of the Middle East peace process "a personal priority" after the US presidential elections in November.

The Prime Minister conceded he had "changed as a leader".

He said: "I have come to realise that caring in politics isn't really about caring, it's about doing what you think is right and sticking to it."

The Premier went on: "I want us to win a third term, not so that we can go in the history books but so that we can confine Britain's failings to the history books.

"With the courage of our convictions we can win the third term, deliver the lasting change. It is worth the fight, now let's get out and do it."