Prime Minister Tony Blair issued a defiant defense of his policies in Iraq and his close alliance with the United States on Tuesday, speaking before a nation and a political party that are skeptical of both.
"I never doubted after September 11th that our place was alongside America, and I don't doubt it now," Blair said here at the annual conference of his Labor Party. He told an auditorium full of party faithful that while civilians "tragically die" in Iraq, "the way to stop the innocent dying is not to retreat, to withdraw, to hand these people over to the mercy of religious fanatics or relics" of the rule of deposed president Saddam Hussein.
Blair made no reference to the question that political Britain most wants answered, the timing of his expected departure from office in favor of Gordon Brown, his longtime finance minister.
Blair's head-on defense of his policies on Iraq was notable because the war, which is deeply unpopular with the British public, cut into Labor's majority in parliament in its historic third consecutive victory in May.
Blair won, but by a much smaller margin than in his previous two victories because of allegations, including from some members of his own party, that he had overstated the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and was too eager to follow President Bush to war.
Although Blair has never shied from defending his Iraq policies, analysts said his comments were remarkable for their timing. Party officials have worked hard this week to keep the Iraq debate at a minimum so as to avoid spoiling harmony at the party's first conference since the elections.
Public opinion against the war hardened this month following an attack in Iraq that resulted in horrifying front page newspaper photos of a British soldier engulfed in flames. But Blair said Britain was right to stand with the United States against "terrorists who use 21st-century technology to fight a pre-medieval religious war utterly alien to the future of humankind."
"He addressed a grown-up party in a grown-up way," said former Labor leader Neil Kinnock. "It's not going to repair anyone's gastric ulcer, but at least they know where he stands."
"Blair has done what he thinks is right," said Peter Kellner, a political analyst and pollster. "Even though it's very unpopular, he's taken the view that he should stand there proud and defend what he believes in and not bend to opinion polls."
Blair, who pursued acting as a young man, said he knew some wanted him to "do a Hugh Grant in 'Love Actually,' " referring to a film in which the actor Grant, playing a British prime minister, tells off a U.S. president. "But the difference between a good film and real life," Blair told his chuckling audience, "is that in real life there's the next day, the next year, the next lifetime to contemplate the ruinous consequences of easy applause."
A day after Brown, Blair's heir apparent, gave a speech that seemed like a campaign announcement, Blair gave a keynote address that was a cross between a State of the Union address and the first chapter of his political memoirs.
He frequently referred to his eight years in office and gave himself and his party glowing marks for being "the change-makers" and improving education, health, foreign aid and the economy -- and even expanding free entry to museums.
But he also looked ahead in a detailed policy speech that laid out a blueprint for Labor's future and assured the party that he was not stepping down any time soon. "Let ours be the party, the one with the values of social justice, equality, fairness, that helps Britain turn a friendly face to the future," he said.