Blair Urges Party to Stop Infighting

The Associated Press
Saturday, September 9, 2006; 10:27 PM

LONDON -- Prime Minister Tony Blair said Saturday his Labour Party risks losing the next general election if personal attacks among party members continue and the party fails to redefine itself and its goals.

Blair urged his party to stop the disputes and clearly outline its positions on complex issues such as security during the war on terrorism, immigration, pension shortfalls and global warming.

"We're not going to win if we have personal attacks by anybody on anyone," Blair said in a speech to a progressive think-tank in London.

Many party members had hoped that Blair's reluctant announcement on Thursday that he would resign within a year would quiet the bitter infighting that flared in the party last week.

But even after Blair left London for Jerusalem _ where he met Saturday evening with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert _ the issue refused to go away.

During a news conference with the Israeli leader, Blair was asked if he would endorse Treasury chief Gordon Brown, widely expected to be the next prime minister, as his successor.

He said he was "not going to go back into all the leadership issues" and chastised journalists for continuing to press the matter.

"I actually think it's kind of disrespectful to come here, after everything this country and this region has been through, and talk about our own internal matters," Blair said.

It is believed that Blair and Brown have reached a private understanding over the handover of power. But angry comments by Charles Clarke, formerly Britain's top law and order official, have since demonstrated how uneasy the new peace is.

In comments published Saturday in The Daily Telegraph, Clarke said Brown's "massive weakness" was that he was a "control-freak" who could not work with people and who lacked Blair's "charm."

In comments published Friday in London's Evening Standard newspaper, Clarke harshly criticized Brown for the way he handled the week's turmoil, saying that his succession as prime minister was not guaranteed.

Brown's allies have insisted he was not behind the anti-Blair plotting.

Senior party figures have publicly backed him as the next Labour leader in an effort to prevent the eventual handover of power from getting even uglier and throwing national elections expected in 2009 to a resurgent Conservative Party.

In his speech in London on Saturday, Blair said the infighting reminded him how his party's ideological disputes had kept it out of power for many years. He said the center-left party, which has been in power since 1997, could still win the next general election if it puts aside the infighting and adapts its positions on complex issues of concern to the British general public.

In a newspaper article Friday, Brown sought to ease the fears of those who worry he would veer left instead of following in Blair's centrist footsteps.

Brown praised the prime minister as courageous and promised that Britain would do whatever was necessary to battle terrorism. He said that during an upcoming trip to New York he would reaffirm to Americans that, as it did after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Britain "stands ... shoulder to shoulder with them."

At a joint news conference with Olmert, Blair expressed his support for Olmert's decision to renew Israel's dialogue with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, despite Hamas' control of the Palestinian parliament and government.

President Bush issued a statement praising Blair's visit to Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories, saying the trip is timely given the deployment of international forces in Lebanon.

"I wish him well in his efforts to promote peace and stability," he said.

© 2006 The Associated Press