'Out of touch' Blair fights to keep Iraq off agenda

PM 'more inflexible than Thatcher', poll finds. Bid to head off 'troops out' call at conference
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Tony Blair's allies will fight a rearguard action today to prevent Labour's annual conference from issuing an embarrassing call for British troops to pull out of Iraq.

Tony Blair's allies will fight a rearguard action today to prevent Labour's annual conference from issuing an embarrassing call for British troops to pull out of Iraq.

As delegates pour into Brighton for the start of the conference this morning, they will come under pressure from party officials not to allow the Iraq conflict to deflect attention from Mr Blair's plans for the next five years of a Labour government.

This afternoon, delegates from more than 600 local Labour parties will be taking part in a ballot to decide whether they want Iraq placed on the agenda. This would give them a chance to vote on whether Britain should pull its troops out.

Efforts to prevent the Iraq war from taking centre stage almost backfired yesterday when a cabinet minister, Peter Hain, said that it was no more than a "fringe" issue, like fox- hunting. He told BBC's Today programme: "Delegates, if they choose to, can prioritise Iraq over the health service, over education, over employment matters, over other issues. That is their right. Hunting and Iraq are just fringe issues as far as conference is concerned." The Leader of Commons later retracted his remark, saying that Iraq is "most emphatically" not a fringe issue.

The emotion surrounding Iraq has been charged up by the plight of the British hostage, Kenneth Bigley. Mr Blair told journalists as he arrived in Brighton yesterday: "We have been in touch with the Bigley family and I think everyone is amazed at how dignified they have been over the last few days.

"We will continue to do whatever we can. If you will forgive me, I don't think there is much more I can or should say at the moment." But he added: "It is important we set out a domestic policy agenda."

A poll conducted exclusively for The Independent on Sunday suggests that more than half the population - 52 per cent - wants British troops pulled out of Iraq after elections have been held there in January, compared with 43 per cent who think they should stay "for as long as the Iraqi government wants them".

Mr Blair's stand over Iraq is also the probable explanation for the poll's astonishing finding that 57 per cent of Britons think he is "inflexible". He is also thought by 63 per cent to be "out of touch".

Many voters also suspect that the Prime Minister has become so absorbed in Iraq that he is neglecting the basic issues that affect most people's lives. "The irony of the Gov-ernment is that, whereas the perception is that it has spent a lot of its second term on foreign affairs, in fact we've been far more radical in domestic politics," Mr Blair told today's Observer. He will seek to overcome this impression by being seen to be addressing everyday issues.

The poll confirms that Mr Blair is playing to his political strengths when he asks voters to concentrate on domestic issues. The poll suggests that Mr Blair's reputation as an "honest" politician who "understands the problems facing Britain" is higher now than when Labour was re-elected in 2001. His speech to the party conference on Tuesday, which is one of the biggest events in the political calendar, will include a promise to seek to wipe out youth unemployment through college places, apprenticeships, and expansion of universities.

But the Prime Minister faces a determined effort by opponents of the Iraq war to keep the issue on the agenda in Brighton all week. A fringe meeting tonight, organised by the pressure group Labour Against the War, will feature a live link-up with Paul Bigley, brother of the British hostage.

At least 14 constituency Labour parties have called for Iraq to be put on the agenda as a "contemporary motion" - though that includes some who want the opportunity to show their support for Mr Blair.

From the moment they arrive in Brighton, they can expect to be met by party officials who will try to persuade them it would be a better idea to follow the pattern of last year's conference, when Iraq was just one among many subjects covered during a morning's debate on international affairs, with no vote taken.

A spokesman for Mr Blair said yesterday: "Iraq is one of the issues of the week, but it isn't the theme of the week, nor should it be."

Labour is in third place for the first time in 20 years, according to a poll by Populus in today's News of the World. It puts the Conservatives at 32 per cent, Lib Dems 29 per cent and Labour 28 per cent. A Mori poll for The Observer gives the Tories 33, Labour 32 and the Lib Dems 25 per cent.