Blair promises to quicken pace of reform

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Tony Blair outlined his vision yesterday for a second term in government, setting out the choices that would define Labour at the next election.

Tony Blair outlined his vision yesterday for a second term in government, setting out the choices that would define Labour at the next election.

The Prime Minister gained his most rapturous conference reception in years as he appealed to delegates to be confident in the Government's policies and the record that people would vote on.

In a lengthy departure from his text he sought to explain his mission by describing the "irreducible core" that drove him in his political ambition. "I am a unifier. I am a builder of consensus. I don't believe in sloppy compromise. But I do believe in bringing people together. There is no point in leading the Labour Party or leading the country without having a mission and a purpose that's more important to you than anything else."

While the "first base was to put the fundamentals in place", Mr Blair promised a second term "more radical than the first. A quickening of the pace of reform, the next steps on our journey, all based on our enduring mission to offer everyone, not just the privileged few, the chance to succeed."

Launching his fightback after the slide in opinion polls, he said: "I'm the prime minister that's supposed to be the great reader of public opinion. After the events of two weeks ago it's no wonder the Government has taken a knock. It happened on my watch and I take responsibility.

"Yes, there are things we have done that have made people angry and we should be open enough to admit it. The Dome. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and if I had my time again I would have listened to those who said governments shouldn't try to run big visitor attractions.

"Seventy-five pence. I tell you now, as Gordon made crystal-clear yesterday, we get the message!

"Let me come direct to the fuel crisis. I owe you an explanation. Yes, petrol is expensive. I am listening to people's anger over fuel duties. For hauliers and farmers, to say nothing of ordinary motorists, there is real hardship. But I have also had to listen over underfunding in the National Health Service."

On pensioners' anger, Mr Blair said: "I am listening to pensioners who believe the Government should give them a greater share of the country's prosperity. But we rejected returning to the earnings link. For the next two or three years we could afford it; but 10, 15 years down the line it would have imposed a huge financial burden on a future generation that would have been unfair to them. But I am listening. I hear. And I will act."

Outlining the big choices facing Britain, the Prime Minister told delegates: "The test of leadership in politics is not how eloquently you say yes. It's how you explain why you're saying no. And if we want to reach our journey's end - that strong, fair and prosperous Britain for all - there are choices to be made."

Mr Blair said the first big choice was to provide a government with the strength to deliver stability, rather than one that took the country back to "boom-and-bust" under the Tories. The second big choice was to provide a government with the strength to help people through change, rather than one that left people to fend for themselves.

Mr Blair ridiculed the Tories for saying unemployment had been a price worth paying for their economic reforms. "Unemployment is never a price worth paying. I want to be the first prime minister in 40 years to stand up and say, 'Britain is back at full employment'."

He criticised William Hague for "leaping aboard every passing bandwagon". He continued: "Opportunism always knocks for William Hague. You want tax cuts? Have them. Spending rises? Have them too." Referring to Mr Hague's claims that he had once drunk 14 pints of beer, Mr Bair said: "It all makes sense after 14 pints. Everything makes sense after 14 pints. John Redwood looks sane. Michael Portillo looks loyal. After 14 pints, even William Hague looks like a prime minister."

Mr Blair said there was a third choice between a government with the strength to invest for the long term or a government that cut spending on public services. "For 18 years Britain suffered chronic under-investment in our public services. It held people back - it reduced opportunity."

Mr Blair, pledging to improve standards in secondary schools, said: "And all these policies that flow from our central belief that every single child deserves an equal chance, that every child is a unique asset to be brought to their fullest potential. It is why we are in this party. It is why education is the passion of this Government." He said Labour had kept the promise in line one of its manifesto contract with the people to increase the share of Britain's national wealth spent on education during this Parliament.

"Today I make a further commitment. Line one of the contract in the next manifesto will be a promise to increase the share of our national wealth spent on education in the next Parliament," Mr Blair said. "Education. Education. Education. Then. Now. And in the future."

On health the Prime Minister hailed the NHS 10-year modernisation plan announced in July, which would provide the biggest investment it had seen. "This party, the Labour Party, will never abandon what was one of the greatest civilising acts of emancipation this country has ever known." In contrast, he added, the Tories were committed to £16bn of cuts in Labour's investment.

Mr Blair told delegates the choice was between a government with the strength to build strong communities or a government that believed there was no such thing as society.

He said crime, anti-social behaviour, racial intolerance and drug abuse were destroying families and communities. "Fail to confront this evil and we will never build a Britain where everyone can succeed."

The fifth choice that faced the country, Mr Blair said, was between a government that led in the world or a government that retreated into isolation. He said the world was moving closer together in money, trade, the environment, defence and security.

Moving on to the issue of the European single currency, Mr Blair said standing up for Britain meant taking the decisions that were in the interests of the country.

"But the choice at the election is not whether we join - that decision is for the people in a referendum." Mr Blair said a strong economy and strong society were two sides of the same coin and he added that to succeed as an economy Britain needed to develop the talents of all.

In a departure from his prepared speech, Mr Blair said: "When I took over as Labour leader I was absolutely sure this party would have to change and my irreducible core was putting that change through.

"One of the things I take most pride and pleasure in is that the Labour Party today is more united in its ideas and policies than at any time I can remember."

The Prime Minister pledged: "It is right to be honest with people. I will do whatever I can to bring people onside but there are certain things I cannot do.

"If you ask me to put tax cuts before education spending, I can't do it. If you ask me to take risks with stability after all we've learnt over the last 30, 40, 50 years - I can't do it.

"Many of you would agree with that. If in order to get a vote I have to go out there and tell people that Europe is a terrible place with lots of foreigners, I can't do that.

"If people want me to go out and exploit the asylum issue for reasons of race, then vote for the other man, because I won't do it. If I am asked to cut that overseas budget that helps people living far away out of a life in poverty, that I can't do.

"So that is something that I have to explain. If we end up with narrow selfish individualism it is bad for our bank balance as well as the type of people we are. But in truth I also believe that the vision we set out is morally right, because it is based on the principle of solidarity."

Mr Blair added: "All that really stands between us and our destination is confidence and trust. The confidence that gives us strength to make the choices, the trust that there is a vision and an end to believe in.

"The purpose of our journey is not to lose our values as a nation but to make them live on.

"For us, this Government, this party that believes passionately in a Britain where everyone, not just a few, get a chance to succeed and knows the Tories will only take us backwards, we now know we are in a fight and it's a fight I relish."

Mr Blair told the delegates that his journey's end would be "a Britain where any child born in this millennium, whatever their background, race or creed, wherever they live, whoever their parents, is able to make the most of the God-given abilities they bring into this world". He added: "That journey is a journey worth making, a fight worth fighting. A fight we must win."