Tony Blair takes his turn to rally a shaky party

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Prime Minister Tony Blair, in a speech laced with apologies for problems which have undermined the government's popularity, told fuel price protesters he would listen to them but said they would have to vie with other demands.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, in a speech laced with apologies for problems which have undermined the government's popularity, told fuel price protesters he would listen to them but said they would have to vie with other demands.

Buffeted by fuel protests and complaints about miserly pensions, Blair's personal popularity has plummeted and his party suddenly trails the opposition Conservatives for the first time since the 1997 election.

"There are things we have done that have made people angry and we should be open enough to admit it," Blair told the party's annual conference. He mentioned specifically the money-losing Millennium Dome in London, and the unpopular 75-pence per week rise in state pensions this year.

On Monday, Treasury chief Gordon Brown promised larger increases in the pension, but targeted on lower incomes. "I tell you now, as Gordon made crystal clear yesterday, we get the message," Blair said. But to the fuel protesters, who set a 60-day deadline for relief, Blair offered no immediate help.

"Yes, petrol is expensive. But of the 14 pence rise since the budget last year, 12 pence has been in the world oil price, which is why these protests have taken place all over the world. "It's true that it's cheaper elsewhere in Europe. But VAT (sales tax) is often higher there. Income tax is higher. Business taxes are higher.

There are road tolls and higher national insurance charges," Blair said. "I am listening to people's anger over fuel duties. For hauliers and farmers to saying nothing of ordinary motorists, there is real hardship," Blair said.

"But I have also had to listen over underfunding in the NHS (National Health Service). Over extra investment in schools. Over more police on the beat. Over public transport." The government apparently is content to let the Conservatives, who hold their annual conference next week, remain alone in offering a fuel tax cut.

Blair had been expected to call an election in the spring, but that timetable may have been scrapped as recent difficulties sent Blair's popularity sinking from the record highs posted soon after he won the 1997 election.

A National Opinion Poll survey released Saturday showed the Conservatives had pulled ahead, with 40 percent support to Labor's 32 percent.

Three-fourths of the sample said that Blair appeared "out of touch" in handling the fuel crisis, 62 percent described him as arrogant, 47 percent said he was incompetent and 43 percent said he was weak.

A Gallup Poll published Monday in The Daily Telegraph said 37 percent of the sample believed things had gotten worse under Labor, compared to 16 percent who felt that way a year ago; 77 percent thought Blair handled the fuel crisis badly.

Each survey had a margin of error of about three percentage points.

Blair's popularity also may be waning among business leaders.

In a MORI poll of corporate executives published Tuesday in the Financial Times, only 28 percent of respondents regarded Blair as a strong leader. Nearly four in 10, 39 percent, felt he had no good qualities.

Pollsters surveyed 210 chairmen and CEOs of firms with more than 200 employees between September 8 and 13.

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