Blair changes his mind about saying sorry

Last-minute changes to his Tuesday speech water down the prime minister's admissions over mistakes in Iraq.

Published September 29, 2004 3:00PM (EDT)

Tony Blair yesterday offered critics of his Iraq war strategy his most contrite justification for the conflict so far but stopped short of an outright apology, removing the word "sorry" from the text of his speech to Labor's Brighton conference in frantic last-minute rewriting. "I know this issue has divided the country. I entirely understand why many disagree," he told the conference. Journalists had been briefed that he would say "I am genuinely sorry about that" between the two sentences, but it was removed.

Blair's attempt to assuage party members over Iraq was combined with a bullish blueprint for a 21st century "opportunity society," which won him a five-minute standing ovation from wary delegates. Blair boasted that Labor would deliver equality of choice to all. "Choice is not a Tory word," he said.

The prime minister made clear his determination to drive Labor toward a third lease on political power, swatting aside the double interruption of pro-hunting and anti-Iraq protesters in the hall.

Unless Thursday's Hartlepool by-election proves disastrous, the speech should give him political breathing space. But the prime minister's justification for Iraq failed to impress his toughest critics, particularly after it emerged that he had watered down his language.

In the crucial passage, heard in attentive silence, he admitted that his prediction on weapons of mass destruction "has turned out to be wrong; I acknowledge and accept that." But he insisted he could not apologize for removing Saddam Hussein from power. "The world is a better place with Saddam in prison," he said.

Where his speech differed from past attempts to resolve the controversy came in the conversational way he voiced people's fears that he was distracted from home affairs, "just pandering to George Bush," or had made the world a more dangerous place. "Do I know I'm right? Judgments aren't the same as facts. Instinct is not science. I'm like any other human being, as fallible and as capable of being wrong. I only know what I believe," he said. There were ripples of applause from some.

Blair insisted there were only two ways of viewing the terrorist threat since 9/11, either as "isolated individual extremists" as have always existed or as "a wholly new phenomenon, worldwide global terrorism" based on a perversion of Islam -- its Saudi roots deep in many countries. Those who took the first view would say of the terror in Iraq: "Look what you have stirred up; now stop provoking them." Whereas his own view required the West to confront and remove this threat "root and branch."

The main aim of the speech, as Downing Street gears up for a general election that may come as early as May 5 of next year was to flag 10 campaign themes centered on public services. Most of his themes were within striking distance of Gordon Brown's vision of a "progressive consensus" in his speech on Monday. But the emphasis on choice -- Blair used the word eight times -- could yet cause tension between the chancellor and prime minister over Labor's manifesto.

Last night cabinet allies and loyalists were confident that Labor's big beasts would unite. "They must; there's an election coming," said one senior minister. Others praised another bravura Blair performance -- more measured and less histrionic than usual -- which combined acknowledgment of the "trust" problem with frequent echoes of Brown's "progressive politics."

The Conservative chairman, Liam Fox, accused Blair of being "out of touch" and said: "It's all talk; we have heard it all before." Labor strategists are confident he is wrong and that Blair's rejection of Tory "ruling class" concepts -- "the rulers are the people," he declared -- was well received.

Echoing Brown, Blair also argued that Labor's fairness agenda -- in health, schooling and beyond -- is the best guard against extremism everywhere, including Britain. "The irony for me is that I, as a progressive politician, know that despite the opposition of so much of progressive politics to what I've done, the only lasting way to defeat terrorism is through progressive politics," he said.

There was much else in Blair's "third term mission to change Britain for good" that the watching chancellor could approve, including his pledge of more help for Africa and his insistence that Britain can only be effective if it is allied to the U.S. -- "little will happen" without it -- and at the center of an enlarged Europe.

Away from the ritualized cheers and the hugs from Cherie Blair, in the real conference arena, the leadership suffered a symbolic defeat yesterday: It was confirmed that delegates voted 60-40 in favor of rail renationalization.

By Michael White

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