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Making a Pitch for Prime Minister

Britain's Gordon Brown lays out his agenda and praises Tony Blair at a Labor Party conference. He supports the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

September 26, 2006|Janet Stobart | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Gordon Brown, Britain's treasury chief, made an explicit bid Monday for the post of prime minister during a speech at the annual Labor Party conference in the northern English industrial city of Manchester.

Brown, whose ambitions for the office have been at the heart of his party's divisions over the tenure of Prime Minister Tony Blair, told a packed audience that he would "relish the opportunity to take on" the opposition Tory Party.

Laying out a centrist agenda notably similar to Blair's, Brown gave fulsome praise to the prime minister.

"It has been a privilege for me to work with and for the most successful ever Labor leader and Labor prime minister," Brown said. Blair watched, smiling, from his seat behind the speaker's podium, and later led a standing ovation.

The party has been divided, with many members of Parliament demanding that Blair fulfill his pledge not to serve a fourth term, and to stand down well before the next election, expected in 2009.

The serious, stoic Brown, who lacks the charisma of Blair, gave a workmanlike speech, and while it lacked the light touch and jokes that many popular speakers use, it was an improvement over the dour and professorial deliveries the 55-year-old Scot has made in the past, political observers said.

"I've watched him for the last 20 years, and this was a huge improvement," Matthew Parris, a conservative commentator and former member of Parliament, told Sky TV. "He used to be abysmal; now he's adequate."

Brown was seen by some backers, including David Blunkett, a former Blair Cabinet secretary, as "speaking to a wider audience beyond the conference hall."

Brown's subjects included international cooperation in the war on terrorism, global economic competition, climate change, and the need for inter-government cooperation on the environment.

He also discussed domestic issues, including the National Health Service, which he praised as "our greatest achievement." He called for more investment in education. He also touted his achievements as chancellor of the exchequer, which included the privatization of the Bank of England, and said that the British economy had become "the most stable economy in the industrialized world."

Brown offered glimpses of a foreign policy that differed little from that of Blair, who has steadfastly backed the Bush administration in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Blair, he said, "taught us ... that the world did change after Sept. 11. That no one can be neutral in the fight against terrorism, and that we -- Britain -- have new international responsibilities to discharge."

He warned against anti-Americanism and echoed Blair's tenet that Britain must stay in the international fight against terrorism "whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else."

But he also played to critics of the war in Iraq: "It is my view that in the future, Parliament, not the executive, makes the final decisions on matters as important as peace and war."

In what was seen as a swipe at David Cameron, the charismatic Conservative Party leader, Brown said, "Some see politics as spectacle; I see politics as service.

"I would relish the opportunity to take on David Cameron and the Conservative Party," he added, drawing the longest applause of his speech.

A shadow was cast over the proceedings, however.

Bloomberg News Service reported that Cherie Blair, the prime minister's wife and a human rights lawyer, muttered, "That's a lie," as she listened to Brown's opening remarks about his warm relationship with her husband.

"I didn't say it, and I don't believe it," Cherie Blair told reporters Monday evening.


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