Tony Blair suggested yesterday that he will remain Prime Minister until 2010 as he vowed in a New Year message not to "falter with the job only half done".
Having already spent six years in office, Mr Blair's remarks werre his strongest signal yet that he intends to carry on at Downing Street for a full third term. If Labour wins the general election expected in 2005, a further six years would mean seeing out a whole parliament, surpassing Margaret Thatcher's record of 11 years in the job.
The Prime Minister's allies are wary of Mr Blair's promise to "go on and on", but stress that controversies such as Iraq and public sector reform have not dimmed his appetite for the job. In his message, Mr Blair underlined his determination to ensure that reforms were seen through to their conclusion, however great the opposition.
Labour MPs are threatening a rebellion over university top-up fees next month, but Mr Blair said he was "confident" that they will make it through Parliament. "Britain is poised to become one of the most successful 21st-century nations," he said. "And I am as committed, as optimistic, as determined today as I was in 1997 to see through the reforms that will make it happen.
"This is no time to turn the clock back, no time to coast, no time to falter with the job only half done. I relish the challenge ahead and I am confident that in partnership - Government and people - we can take the next important steps forward in 2004." On variable tuition fees, Mr Blair said the more people addressed the real choices in delivering a fair system of student finance, "the stronger the support for our proposals". He added: "I am confident in our plans - free at the point of study, fair at the point of repayment - and believe we will get them through.
The theme of Mr Blair's message was that difficult decisions taken by the Government were "beginning to pay off". Mr Blair said the work being done by British service personnel in post-Saddam Iraq held the prospect of a brighter future for the country and the region. But again, the job had to be seen through to the end.
"The capture of Saddam Hussein was a vital milestone on the road to a stable Iraq," he said. "Constant progress on essential services like electricity and water are sure signs that life in Iraq is slowly going in the right direction. In 2004 we must stick to the task. There will be no better signal for the Middle East or the world than a democratic, prosperous Iraq replacing a tyrannical, brutal dictatorship."
In his New Year message, Michael Howard, the Tory leader, accused Labour of being addicted to over-centralised government. "The Conservative Party enters the new year in good heart, united in its purpose to offer the British people an alternative government," he said. "In 2004, our task will be to speak up for millions of our fellow citizens who, though living in a first-class country, often have to put up with second-class services."
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