Blair: 'I am listening. I hear. And I will act'

Fuel tax: "I am listening to people's anger. For hauliers and farmers, to say nothing of ordinary motorists, there is real hardship"
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Indy Politics

Tony Blair staked his claim for a second term as Prime Minister yesterday when he admitted his Government had made mistakes, insisted he was "listening" to the country and said he was a "man with a mission" to transform it.

Tony Blair staked his claim for a second term as Prime Minister yesterday when he admitted his Government had made mistakes, insisted he was "listening" to the country and said he was a "man with a mission" to transform it.

In a fighting speech to the Labour Party conference in Brighton, Mr Blair set out his personal credo in an attempt to win back the trust of voters who have deserted Labour and caused the party's drastic slide in the opinion polls since the fuel crisis.

The speech, which calmed his party's jitters, marked the start of the campaign for a general election that Mr Blair still intends to call next May despite the problems. Sweating profusely by the end of his 55-minute address, Mr Blair admitted Labour now faced "a fight" for the "heart and soul of the country".

In an attempt to show the Government had not run out of steam, he unveiled new policies including a £20m-a-year boost for cancer services to be unveiled today; a £1bn package to improve computer training in schools, new targets for pupils aged 14 and 16 and £1bn of investment in sport over three years.

Promising "zero tolerance of the yob culture", Mr Blair confirmed fixed penalty fines would be introduced for loutish behaviour and said victims would be able to give courts a written assessment of the impact of the crime on them.

Mr Blair tackled the Government's sudden mid-term crisis head-on, saying: "There are things we have done that have made people angry and we should be open enough to admit it." Taking full personal responsibility for the rebellion over fuel prices, he said he was "listening to people's anger" but insisted he also had to listen to complaints of underfunding in the NHS and schools.

He was sympathetic to the demands for more help for Britain's 11 million pensioners, recognising the anger over the 75p-a-week rise in the state pension in April. "We get the message," he said. He went on: "I am listening. I hear. And I will act."

Mr Blair went further in admitting his mistakes over the Millennium Dome, saying he should have "listened to those who said governments shouldn't try to run big visitor attractions". His conciliatory tone included a retreat from his attack a year ago on what he called "the forces of conservatism". Yesterday he said: "I am a unifier. I am a builder of consensus. I don't believe in soggy compromise, but I do try, and believe in bringing together."

Departing from his prepared text, he then spoke of his own "irreducable core" and vowed to stick to his principles rather than compete with the Tories for votes by sacrificing them.

He hinted at specific tax cuts for those on lower and middle incomes, but said he would never put tax cuts before education spending or overseas aid, or put economic stability at risk, or "stick two fingers" up to the "terrible foreigners", or exploit the asylum issue. Mr Blair put the choice between Labour's investment in public services and the £16bn of cuts he said would be implemented by the Tories.

He illustrated the impact of the Tories' plans on services in the first shot of what will be a key theme of Labour's election campaign.

Mr Blair reassured his party that, if he won a second term, it would be "more radical than the first" and the pace of reform would quicken. Previewing Labour's manifesto, he promised a 10-year plan for the NHS and transport; the transformation of secondary education; a cradle-to-grave poverty strategy; harnessing new technology to spread prosperity to all; the next steps to full employment; making the streets safe and society strong.

Mr Blair's line on fuel angered organisers of this month's protest, who said his speech had increased "10-fold" the prospect of another blockade. David Handley, chairman of the People's Fuel Lobby, and chairman of the Farmers for Action group, said: "We are all incredibly disappointed and angry. He has not listened and his arrogance has stood firm and fast. He could have toned it down and offered us a glimmer of hope but he didn't."

Mr Blair's pledge for a "national cancer plan" disappointed the Cancer Research Campaign, which withdrew a statement welcoming his announcement after realising that it would mean an extra £20m a year rather than £200m as the group originally took his speech to mean.

Mr Hague, the Conservative leader, told a dinner in London that Mr Blair's refusal to say sorry showed he was not listening to people about issues such as petrol tax.

He dismissed the speech as "a mix of the usual New Labour cocktail: meaningless statistics that cover up a comprehensive failure to deliver, unscripted promises to listen that reveal just how out of touch he has become, and apologies that never amount to saying you are sorry".