The man is not for turning

A defiant Blair echoes Thatcher: 'I can only go one way. I've not got a reverse gear'
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Indy Politics

A battered but defiant Tony Blair sought to win back public and party support yesterday by trying to draw a line under the Iraq war, but warned his critics that they would have to accept him on his terms.

In his speech to the Labour conference in Bournemouth, Mr Blair promised to abandon his "top down" presidential style but made no concessions on his public-service reforms. Echoing Margaret Thatcher's "the lady's not for turning" pledge in 1981, he said: "I can only go one way. I've not got a reverse gear."

The Prime Minister delivered an implied rebuke to Gordon Brown, who irritated him on Monday by staking out an alternative, more traditional "Labour" agenda and refused to endorse the "New Labour" project. Mr Blair said: "I've never led this party by calculation. Policy you calculate. Leadership comes by instinct."

Mr Blair won a warm, but not ecstatic, seven-minute standing ovation after urging Labour to unite behind the aim of winning the prize of an unprecedented third full term and becoming the natural party of government in this century. He urged his party to move on from the divisive issue of Iraq by offering his most conciliatory words towards those who opposed his hawkish stance.

There was no immediate sign of the Iraq furore abating last night as the issue ignited.

Michael Foot, the former Labour leader attacked Tony Blair's "lies'' over the war on Iraq as he made an unprecedented personal assault on the PM.

Speaking at the Tribune Rally, Mr Foot broke with his usual convention of not criticising Mr Blair's conduct, as he warned that the conflict had made the world less, rather than more safe from the threat of weapons of mass destruction.

''If we have a full scale international action to stop all the weapons of mass destruction, then we won't have to hear any more lies from our leaders on this,'' the 90-year-old told the 400 strong audience.

Meanwhile, unions were furious after their demands for a vote on whether Mr Blair was wrong to launch the military strike on Iraq were quashed - when the Labour leadership refused to accept a motion criticising the war.

Tony Blair still faces a row over his decision to go to war after the leadership agreed to allow delegates to vote on an uncontroversial policy paper about Iraq today.

But the policy paper does not criticise the government but it could form a platform for critical speeches from the floor.

In his speech, Mr Blair admitted that the war had divided the international community, the party, the country, families and friends. "I know many people are disappointed, hurt, angry. I know many profoundly believe the action we took was wrong," he said. "I do not at all disrespect anyone who disagrees with me."

Mr Blair confessed he had doubts after receiving a letter from parents who believed their soldier son had died in vain in Iraq, but had another from a bereaved couple saying he had done the right thing.

While he hinted that some British intelligence might have been wrong, he insisted he would take the same decision again if presented with such information about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Highlighting the threat that terrorists could obtain WMD, he said: "Britain should be in there helping confront it, not because we're America's poodle, but because dealing with it will make Britain safer."

He insisted that the world needed an engaged rather than an isolationist United States. Insisting that Iraq was a better country without Saddam Hussein, he pledged: "We who started the war must finish the peace."

He admitted that, after six years in power, he was in a "rough patch" and "more battered" but said strong leadership was the only sort he could offer. "I believe the British people will forgive a government mistakes ... but what they won't forgive is cowardice in the face of a challenge."

Opening a new phase in his premiership of "renewal, not retreat", he said: "I know the old top-down approach won't work any more. I know I can't say, 'I am the leader, follow me'."

He promised that the biggest consultation exercise between the Government and the British people would be launched in the coming months, to ensure an honest debate on the challenges facing the country.

In a riposte to Mr Brown's pitch the previous day, Mr Blair said: "New Labour for me was never a departure from belief. It is my belief," said Mr Blair.

"The just society in which each person is a full and equal citizen of our land."