British Treasury chief wins standing ovation as Blair's popular

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

BOURNEMOUTH, England -- The key to winning applause for Prime Minister Tony Blair's policies, it seems, is simple: be somebody else.

Treasury Chief Gordon Brown won a prolonged standing ovation from the governing Labor Party's annual conference Monday after insisting the government will not back away from policies -- including the war in Iraq -- that are unpopular at the grass roots.

The difference, delegates say, is they believe Brown's heart is in the right place, firmly on the left.

"I think he stole Tony's thunder," said Labor stalwart Eva Taylor, following Brown's rousing speech in Bournemouth, southern England. "Gordon Brown is more connected with the party."

Will the prime minister receive such a warm reception when he takes to the podium today? "Not from me personally," said party member Moira Wilcox. "Gordon comes through as being more honest."

Blair's popularity is sliding in the polls. Many members of his party are still furious that he committed British troops to the war in Iraq without explicit approval from the United Nations.

At a turbulent party conference, the government is also facing opposition over its plans to reform public services. Opponents fear Blair is pushing the party too far to the right and have vowed to fight proposals to increase university tuition fees and inject private cash into Britain's state-run health service.

In a passionate address Monday, Brown insisted the government would not back down on reforms, and he urged the party to unite.

Brown said it was right "to back our leader Tony Blair in his efforts today to bring security and reconstruction to Iraq."

He promised strong support for the National Health Service but insisted it must modernize.

Still, he sought to reassure delegates that the government would remain true to its ideals and "always be on the side of hard-working families and opportunity for all."

He vowed to eradicate child poverty, protect worker's rights and boost financial support for struggling pensioners.

He urged the international community to double aid to developing countries to ensure free health care for all children.

The speech was a hit.

"This was a Labor speech by a Labor chancellor with socialism at its base for the agenda at home and abroad," said Kevin Curran, general secretary of the GMB union.

"Wonderful," said Labor councilor Winston Vaughan. "I think Blair will speak about the same things, but he will not get the same response. Party members are disillusioned with the leadership, and I mean the prime minister. I have been hearing from delegates that maybe Blair should go."

Brown is seen as Blair's most likely successor as prime minister. According to persistent rumors, he struck a deal with Blair in 1994, shortly after the death of Labor Party leader John Smith.

Brown allegedly agreed to bow out of the leadership race, in exchange for a promise that Blair, if elected, would step down midway through a second term in office -- next June -- to make way for his old competitor.

But commentators say Blair's position is far from terminal and point out that his government, unlike many others at midterm, is still comfortably ahead in the polls.

"I think he will come through this time," said political historian Anthony Seldon. "He has got enormous zest and energy."

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