Blair Says Labor Party Must End Feuding
By ALAN COWELL | Published: September 9, 2006
LONDON, Sept. 9 — Prime Minister Tony Blair warned on Saturday that Britain's Labor Party would lose power if it did not show it was "hungry for power" and halt the "irredeemably old-fashioned" personal feudings surrounding his succession.
After a week of bitter infighting and pressure from his rival and onetime ally Gordon Brown, Mr. Blair was forced on Thursday to set a 12-month time-limit on his continued tenure after nine years in office.
But the feuding has continued. On Saturday, Charles Clarke, a Labor stalwart and a government minister until Mr. Blair dismissed him in May in a cabinet reshuffle, said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph that Mr. Brown was an uncollegiate "control freak" who had "psychological" problems with debate.
"We just don't know what he thinks on a range of issues," Mr. Clarke said. "What would his foreign policy look like? Will he pull troops out of Iraq? He wants to produce rabbits out of a hat after he becomes leader. I think he's got to produce his rabbits now. He's got to explaion what his vision is."
Mr. Brown offered no public response to the onlsaught — the second attack by Mr. Clarke in two days. But one Labor legislator and Brown loyalist, George Mudie, said Mr. Clarke's "abusive and offensive language" seemed to suggest an effort by the prime minister's supporters to discredit him as a potential successor. By this argument, Mr. Blair wishes to block Mr. Brown, fearing he would undo Mr. Blair's political legacy.
At a speech to the loyalist Progress think tank on Saturday, Mr. Blair said "there was something irredeemably old-fashioned" about the sparring between rival camps over the past week. "The only thing we did not have is the smoke-filled rooms and that is because we banned those," he said, referring jokingly to Britain's broad indoor smoking ban.
But, Mr. Blair said, "We are not going to win if we have personal attacks by anybody on anyone because it turns the public off and makes them think we are interested again in ourselves and not in them."
He said Labor could win a fourth term in office "not by behaving like we did last week, but behaving like we did when we were hungry for power before 1997, when we understood that what matters is the people of the country, not ourselves."
Wearing an open-necked blue shirt, Mr. Blair seemed relaxed and at ease among faithful followers who gave him three standing ovations before he left, heading off for the Middle East on a trip likely to focus on Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It was not clear whether his impending loss of high office would further reduce British influence on events there.
The speech was Mr. Blair's first since his reluctant announcement on Thursday that he would resign within 12 months. He has not specified a date, but acknowledged: "There is a stage at which it is sensible as a political leader to move on and that is just the way it is."
Mr. Blair is the first Labor leader to win three successive terms in office. He said two years ago that he would not try for a fourth election, and Mr. Brown has been pressing for a firm date for him to go.
The prime minister's less harried mood on Saturday suggested that he felt the pressure on him had eased — if only slightly — with the spotlight now shifting to Mr. Brown, his policies and his prospects. But many in the party still seemed troubled by the high-level fighting.
"This government is becoming a wounded animal," said Diana Strongbow, a Labor Party activist who spoke during a question-and-answer session after the speech. "This has got to stop," she said of the warring camps. "They have to shut up and grow up." With young men "coming back from Afghanistan in body bags," it was an insult for politicians to go on fighting among themselves, she said.
Mr. Blair's speech seemed to persuade some loyalists at least that the party would survive the crisis to fight the next election, due by 2010 at the latest. "In the last few days people thought we had lost it," said Lord Clive Soley, a Labor peer who was part of the audience. "I think people will pull back," he said, saying the events of the past days had been "dreadful."
Gillian Guy, a theater promoter and Labor activist, said she had feared before the speech that Mr. Blair might be heckled, reflecting opinion surveys, such as one in The Guardian on Saturday, showing that half of British voters — and a third of Labor supporters — want Mr Blair to leave by the end of the year.
But his words "refreshed me," she said. "He's past his sell-by date, but the speech made people here feel it's worthwhile to go on."