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"Pensions are likely to be the big row"
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banner Sunday, 24 September, 2000, 19:06 GMT 20:06 UK
Blair comes out fighting
Tony Blair and John Prescott
Crucial week for the Labour leadership
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

Tony Blair has started his most crucial party conference as Labour leader with a concerted attempt to bury the problems that have pitched his government into crisis.

With yet more polls showing his popularity plummeting to an eight-year low, he has signalled concessions to pensioners and petrol demonstrators and he has tried to dismiss the Bernie Ecclestone row.

He admitted the 75p pension increase had sent the wrong message to voters and he even confessed the Millennium Dome was a mistake and suggested he should not have gone ahead with it.

But he insisted he would "hold firm and get through" the crisis and he called on the party faithful arriving in Brighton to hold their nerve.

'I take responsibility'

In newspaper and television interviews he accepted personal responsibility for the issues battering his government, but appeared somewhat reluctant in doing so.

"It happened on my watch, so I take responsibility for it," he declared about the fuel crisis.

And, later, about the Dome, he said: "I think I have come to the view that I take responsibility for everything."

He again dismissed claims that he and Chancellor Gordon Brown had lied about the 1m cash donation from Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone, but he also attempted to side-step precise questions about the timing of events.

In one instance he insisted published correspondence would show he was right when he declared he had asked sleazebuster Lord Neill to give advice on the loan before journalists started asking questions about it.

But he also kept repeating that he was determined to focus on the "big issues" - such as employment, the economy and education - rather than being distracted by what he suggested were media obsessions.


This was a prime minister determined to present a confident, secure image while, at the same time, attempting not to look complacent.

He appeared eager to suggest concessions on pensions and fuel prices - something that may cause further tension between him and Mr Brown who has presented a far more unbending attitude.

And he knows he is still facing a hugely difficult conference, with delegates planning to defeat him over the issues of pensions unless he makes clear concessions.

This could be the key week of Mr Blair's premiership.

If he gets it right, reinvigorates his grassroots and boosts his poll standing, then he may be allowed a small sigh of relief.

If much more goes wrong for him or the conference turns into an exercise in Blair-bashing he could even see things getting worse.

His comments about taking personal responsibility for everything may then come back to haunt him.

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See also:

24 Sep 00 | UK Politics
Pensions policy 'seen as unfair'
24 Sep 00 | Labour
Labour salutes 'Our Mo'
24 Sep 00 | UK Politics
Pressure mounts over Ecclestone cash
24 Sep 00 | Labour
Cabinet wrangles mark first day
24 Sep 00 | Labour
Blair admits Dome letdown
24 Sep 00 | Labour
Crime detection 'will rise'
24 Sep 00 | Labour
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