Blair: I've not got a reverse gear

Uncompromising Prime Minister tells party delegates that the drive to improve public services will not be checked
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Indy Politics

An uncompromisingTony Blair today told his party conference: "I can only go one way. I've not got a reverse gear."

Offering a concession to temper unease in the Labour Party, the Prime Minister promised the widest-ever policy consultation before the next election, but made clear that his drive to modernise the public services will not be checked.

Billed as the most difficult speech Mr Blair has had to make during his period as Labour leader, delegates gave him a rousing reception and he returned to the hall twice to acknowledge a standing ovation at the end of his 51-minute speech.

He told delegates in Bournemouth: "People ask me if I am surprised that things have got so tough. I say I am surprised it has taken so long.

"Why? I've been trying to say this to you for the best part of 10 years but never quite found the words. But now I've hit the rough patch, it's time to try again."

The Prime Minister went on: "Up to now there has been a ritual to Labour governments - euphoria on victory, hard slog in Government, tough times. Party accuses leadership of betrayal, leadership accuses party of ingratitude. Disillusion. Defeat. Long period of Tory Government before next outbreak of euphoria.

He praised former Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, for making a speech attacking Militants in the same Bournemouth conference hall in 1985 saying that was when the party's journey to government had begun.

He went on: "What I learned that day was not about the far left. It was about leadership. Get rid of the false choice - principals or no principals. Replace it with the true choice - forward or back.

"I can only go one way. I've not got a reverse gear."

Mocking his current standing in the polls, Mr Blair told delegates: "The time to trust a politician most is not when they're taking the easy option. Any politician can do the popular things. I know I used to do a few of them."

"We've been far better at defeating ourselves than the Tories have ever been," Mr Blair said.

The Prime Minister delivered his much trailed uncompromising message on Iraq saying: "Iraq has divided the international community. It has divided the party, the country, families, friends.

"I know many people are disappointed, hurt, angry. I know many profoundly believe the action we took was wrong. I do not at all disrespect anyone who disagrees with me.

"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.

"Imagine you are PM, and you receive this intelligence and not just about Iraq but about the whole murky trade in WMD .... So what do I do?

"Say 'I've got the intelligence but I've a hunch it's wrong'?" he asked the conference

In a concession to unease in the party, Mr Blair admitted: "I know the old top down approach won't work any more. I know I can't say 'I am the leader, follow me'.

"Over the coming months I want our party to begin a new discussion with the people of Britain. Across major policy areas the Government will publish a prospectus, discussing the progress we have made and the challenges our country will face.

"This must not just be a discussion between us, because if we want a Government in touch with the party, we must have a party in touch with the people.

"So let us make this the biggest policy consultation ever to have taken place in this country."

The Prime Minister promised this would involve "the ministers from me down, our MPs out in every constituency hosting discussions that engage with the whole community."

Mr Blair acknowledged the problems he faces in rebuilding trust with his party and the voters saying: "I know it's hard for people to keep faith, some of the people may have a different take on me. But I have the same take on them.

"I trust their decency, I trust their innate good sense.

"I know I am the same person I always was - older, tougher, more experienced but basically the same person believing the same things.

"I've never led this party by calculation. Policy you calculate, leadership comes by instinct.

"I believe the British people will forgive a Government's mistakes, but what they won't forgive is cowardice in the face of a challenge."

Mr Blair defended his controversial plan for foundation hospitals saying: "When I read a resolution saying foundation hospitals are opposed by an alliance of the British Medical Association and the House of Lords, and yes, Tories and Lib

Dems too, what are we: A progressive party?

"If we had listened to that alliance, we would never have had an NHS in the first place."

The Prime Minister stressed his vision of a fair society telling delegates: "Fairness remade. A Britain without poverty. First-class public services, community renewed."