Blair: I'm here to stay

Determined PM plans for the long haul, risking new rift with Brown
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Indy Politics

The Prime Minister, who wants another three years in his job, told the Labour conference in Brighton that the party must continue his programme of reforms after he departs, warning that it would lose office if it ducked the hard choices required by the global economy.

By highlighting challenges such as the pensions crisis, whether to build a new generation of nuclear power stations and further public service reforms, Mr Blair made clear that he wants to complete what he regards as his unfinished business before he hands over the reins. He also wants to ensure that his party fights the next general election on a radical New Labour manifesto to cement his reforms.

But Mr Blair's determination to stay in No 10 until 2008 risks a head-on confrontation with Mr Brown, the front-runner to succeed him, who wants him to set out his departure timetable a year from now and to stand down no later than 2007.

Mr Blair was irritated by Mr Brown's announcement on Monday that he would embark on a nationwide tour over the next year, which he saw as an attempt to bounce him into an early exit.

Downing Street ordered cabinet ministers yesterday to say in media interviews that Mr Blair would carry on until towards the end of the parliament. Mr Blair's wife, Cherie, dismissed the idea that he was ready to leave Downing Street, telling the BBC at a book-signing ceremony: "That is a long way in the future. It is too far ahead for me to even think about."

Allies of the Chancellor insisted Mr Brown should take over before 2008. Geoffrey Robinson, the former treasury minister, said the new leader should be in place at least two years before the next election and that "three years would be ideal". He accused Blairite ministers of "provoking" the Brown camp, saying: "I think the Prime Minister's good sense will prevail. The new, incoming leader - who will be Gordon - has to have time to establish himself, prepare for the next election."

Avoiding the rhetoric that has marked his previous Labour conference speeches, Mr Blair reminded his party of his achievements during eight years in power and made clear he wanted to go further and faster after learning from past mistakes. "Every time I've ever introduced a reform in government, I wish in retrospect I had gone further," he said. Mr Blair added: "Nations aren't built by dreamers. They rise by the patient courage of the change-maker. That's what we have been in New Labour. The change-makers."

If Labour continued to change to meet the challenges of a fast-changing world, he said, "then the fourth election can be won and the future will be ours to share".

Although he praised Mr Brown's record, he showed his appetite to continue as Prime Minister by saying his determination to face down new challenges was ingrained in him "like a strip of granite running through my being".

He warned his party to learn the lessons of history and remember that it was banished to the electoral wilderness for 18 years when it refused to face up to the need for change.

"We forgot that the first rule of any party with aspirations to government is to understand first the aspirations of people and how they change with time," he said. Labour could be the party that made the country at ease with globalisation, forged a consensus on public services and tackled social disorder.

He announced that the Government would soon publish plans to tilt the criminal justice system away from offenders. Police and local authorities will get more summary powers to punish people for antisocial behaviour without taking them to court. A scheme for offenders to do community work such as removing graffiti will go nationwide and police will get powers to ban people liable to commit alcohol-related offences from certain areas. The White Paper will also announce measures to combat drug-dealing and organised crime.

Mr Blair announced plans for every area to have a neighbourhood police team of one police officer and two community support officers by 2008. The Prime Minister offered no concessions to his critics on the war in Iraq despite growing calls for British troops to withdraw, saying that would harm the drive to bring democracy to the country. He was adamant that Britain should remain the United States's closest ally.

Views from the floor

TONY WOODLEY, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union: " As he said himself, these are challenging times, and it's now time to hand over to the person whose going to take us forward over the next decade. As always it was a competent speech from an orator. There is no doubt he has played a major role in the creation of history."

DAVE PRENTIS, general secretary of the public service union Unison: " His big mistake was announcing he was retiring. Since then there has been constant speculation about when he's going to go. He's got to go sooner rather than later. This was the speech of a prime minister who has taken us to three election victories. He told us of his achievements - and it's right he should stress them. But he didn't have anything new to say."

GEOFF HOON, Leader of the Commons: " Tony set out the achievements of the government over eight years that he has led so successfully. He is entitled to go on and deliver the manifesto he and I and others were elected on. Equally I think he is committed to standing down at a time that allows Gordon the opportunity to establish himself as Prime Minister. That is a proper balance."

BOB MARSHALL-ANDREWS, MP for Medway: " I would like to see him go as soon as possible. The Iraq war was a resigning issue because we were badly misled. In terms of rhetoric, the speech was very good and in terms of content, it was well-written. It was very low on self-analysis, very low on the state of the party, very low on any form of repentance on Iraq."

ALAN MILBURN, the former health secretary: " It's important that when politicians make commitments to the British public, they see them through. And one of the commitments that Tony made to the British public was that he would serve a full term. I personally wouldn't be surprised if you find Tony Blair has a fair few conference speeches in him yet."

MARGARET HENDERSON, from Carlisle: " Once he said he was going he should do something about it. He should not just hang on. He should give the next leader a chance. The speech was very good, it was inspirational. But I think Mr Blair could do a lot more work working people. He should do more at home rather than abroad."

BOB EADIE, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath: " There is no longer any question of who will succeed. This was not a speech of someone hanging up his boots next week or very soon, but there will be an orderly transition. The timing is less important. The message to the party was look to the future."

JIM WHITE, Teignbridge, Devon: " I strongly hope it will be the end of the third term before Mr Blair decides to go. It was a wonderful speech, no shirking and taking full responsibility for all the decisions taken."

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