- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2006

MANCHESTER, England — Tony Blair gave his last address to his Labor Party as prime minister yesterday, saying it is important to stay close to Washington in the fight against terrorism even though it can be hard to be the United States’ strongest ally.

The 53-year-old leader acknowledged it would be difficult for him to leave office, but that it was the right thing to do.

In a wistful but forward-looking speech, Mr. Blair told the party it must remain bold if it is to hold onto power and said the only legacy he cared about was his Labor Party winning a fourth term.

Delegates, grateful for the three straight election victories to which Mr. Blair led their party, listened raptly as he spoke and frequently interrupted him with cheers. Many waved supportive placards reading “Too young to retire” and “Tony, you made Britain better.”

Mr. Blair fondly recalled his start in politics as a young parliamentary candidate in 1983, and said Labor had changed the terms of debate in British politics during his time as leader.

“The truth is, you can’t go on forever,” he said. “That’s why it is right that this is my last conference as leader.”

Although Mr. Blair has long had a love-hate relationship with a party he has remade since taking its helm in 1994, he said he would always watch Labor’s achievements with pride — whether or not it took his parting advice.

Mr. Blair said fighting terrorism would remain a tough challenge for Britain in the years after he leaves office, but that it was crucial to stay close to the United States — despite the severe political damage he suffered for his tight relationship with President Bush and his support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

“Yes, it’s hard sometimes to be America’s strongest ally,” he said, adding that close involvement in the European Union could also be difficult. “At the moment, I know people only see the price of these alliances. Give them up and the cost in terms of power, weight and influence for Britain would be infinitely greater.

“Distance this country and you may find it’s a long way back,” he said.

Mr. Blair gave in to a fierce rebellion in the party to announce on Sept. 7 that he would step down within a year, although he has not set a date.

He offered warm praise for Treasury chief Gordon Brown, the man expected to succeed him, but stopped short of making an endorsement. Mr. Blair said Labor would never have won its three terms without Mr. Brown’s contributions, but acknowledged their relationship had been strained at times.

“In no relationship at the top of any walk of life is it always easy, least of all in politics,” he said. “[Mr. Brown] is a remarkable man, a remarkable servant to this country. And that is the truth.”

Labor, he said, had so succeeded in remaking British politics that the opposition Conservative Party has moved away from the right and toward the center in response.

The address came a day after Mr. Brown strengthened his claim to the top job with a self-confident speech setting out a centrist vision for the party.

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