By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
MANCHESTER, England, Sept. 25 -- Gordon Brown, the leading candidate to succeed Tony Blair as prime minister, said Monday he regretted rifts he has had with Blair and praised him for realizing "that the world did change after September 11 . . . and that we, Britain, have new international responsibilities to discharge."
Brown, 55, has yet to make clear if, or how, his stance on the war in Iraq, broadly unpopular in Britain, differs from Blair's. But in an address to the annual conference of the ruling Labor Party, he offered a glimpse of his views on foreign policy and terrorism.
"Let me promise we will take any necessary steps," he said, "and find all necessary resources to ensure, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else, there is no safe haven for terrorists and no hiding place for terrorist finance."
In the future, "Parliament, not the executive, makes the final decisions on matters as important as peace and war," said Brown, who has been chancellor of the exchequer, or finance minister, under Blair since 1997. Many legislators from the Labor Party feel that Blair has not adequately consulted them on the Iraq war.
He called on Britain to maintain its "very special relationship" with the United States but said it should not be "slavish" in its dealings with Washington. Brown said he has no time for "anti-Americanism."
Blair sat smiling on the stage as Brown spoke. But the show of unity was shattered by a report by Bloomberg News that Cherie Blair, the prime minister's wife, was overheard saying, "Well, that's a lie," when Brown said it had been a privilege to work with Tony Blair. Bloomberg said that its reporter heard the words.
Blair's office on Downing Street called the report "untrue and rubbish," but it quickly hit the airwaves and dominated hallway conversations here.
"It destroys any pretense of unity," said Christian Wolmar, a writer and broadcaster attending the conference. "Of course she said it. Everybody knows that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have had this feud."
Setting out a vision for Britain under his leadership, Brown said that "commitment to international action on justice means today, to prevent genocide, the world must, through the U.N., urgently act in Darfur." He also said that Britain would be "calling on the World Bank and our international partners to create, for alternative energy for poorer countries, a $20 billion global fund."
Making what analysts called the most important speech of his career, Brown pledged that at home he would build what he called the "the good society." He said he would vastly increase spending for public schools, the environment and public housing. "The Labor Party must stand for more than a program," he said. "We must have a soul."
But it was his comments about his longtime collaborator and rival that drew particular attention at the conference, held in a convention center in this northern city, whose economic resurgence has become a metaphor for the prosperity that has come to Britain during Labor's tenure.
"Where over these years differences have distracted from what matters, I regret that, as I know Tony does, too," Brown said, punctuating several passages with praise for Blair.
Tension has been building between them recently. Blair was pressured to say he would step down within a year, as party members loyal to Brown urged Blair to resign to make room for him.
New opinion surveys show that party infighting has contributed to a slide by Labor.
A YouGov poll published Monday in the Telegraph newspaper found that 38 percent of those surveyed said that if there were a general election tomorrow, they would vote for the main opposition party, the Conservatives, compared with 31 percent for Labor.
When Blair steps down, Labor -- currently the largest party in parliament -- will elect a new leader who will become prime minister until the next election is called sometime before mid-2010.
Polls show that voters credit Brown with the country's economic growth. But they are also concerned that he is a brooding workaholic and suggest he may not be a match for the more youthful, telegenic Conservative Party leader, David Cameron.
"He is not Mr. Smiley, Mr. Communicator," said Angus McKee, a party member from Edinburgh, Scotland. "But he has brains, and he has proven it."
A party supporter from Manchester, Joan Keysell, said, "I think he is fantastic. He's a man of substance."
Brown poked a bit of fun Monday at his reputation as a policy wonk, saying, "It will not be a surprise to you to learn I'm more interested in the future of the Arctic Circle than the future of the Arctic Monkeys," a hugely popular British band.
Blair is set to take the stage Tuesday. Former president Bill Clinton, a friend of Blair and Brown, is scheduled to appear at the conference Wednesday to show his support for their party.