Page last updated at 15:59 GMT, Tuesday, 30 March 2010 16:59 UK

Tony Blair rallies Labour members for election campaign

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Tony Blair: "The country has to go forward with energy"

Tony Blair has praised Gordon Brown's "experience, judgement and boldness", saying he had taken the right decisions to help Britain out of recession.

The former prime minister entered the pre-election fray with his first domestic political speech since he stepped down as PM in 2007.

Addressing Labour members in his former Sedgefield constituency, he accused the Tories of being "confused" on policy.

The Tories said his record in office meant he should not "lecture" people.

Tory chairman Eric Pickles said Mr Blair's performance told people "nothing about what Labour has to offer this country".

Mr Blair led Labour to three successive general election victories and, although he and Mr Brown had an often difficult relationship while they were prime minister and chancellor, the two campaigned alongside each other to secure victories in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

Following the speech, Mr Brown said: "I welcome Tony Blair campaigning and I welcome him saying that there is a real risk, a real danger, a real threat from the Conservative Party."

Controversial figure

In his speech, Mr Blair said he was optimistic about Britain's future and that "the financial crisis does not diminish this optimism".

"The way we are coming through the crisis instead reinforces it. We are not out of the woods yet; but we are on the path out. This did not happen by chance; but by choice."

He said the Labour government realised that "decisive action was necessary and urgent. Britain acted." He added: "It required leadership. Gordon Brown supplied it."

EYEWITNESS
Brian Wheeler
By Brian Wheeler, BBC News, in Sedgefield

The hair may be a bit thinner and there is a trace of a mid-Atlantic accent - "things can only get bedder" - but all the familiar Blair mannerisms were in place.

It was a far cry from his emotional 2007 farewell as prime minister. The audience listened in respectful silence as he delivered an analysis of where he thinks David Cameron is going wrong.

There were the jokey, self-deprecating asides, the grin, the slightly halting delivery. He was clearly at ease on his favourite political stage and glad to be back.

There was a polite standing ovation at the end. It remains to be seen what impact he might have had on voters.

Newspaper reports have suggested Mr Blair will make several appearances during the campaign, in a strategy endorsed by his successor Gordon Brown.

However, he remains a controversial figure after taking the UK to war in Iraq in 2003.

Appearing before the Chilcot inquiry into the war in January, Mr Blair said he had no regrets about removing Saddam Hussein from power, saying he was a "monster" and a threat to international peace.

Mr Blair used his speech to rally support for Labour ahead of the start of the election campaign, which Mr Brown is expected to trigger next week.

He also used it to attack the Conservatives, accusing them of "confusion" over their policies on Europe, law and order and the NHS.

"So why the confusion? The benign... explanation is that the policy-makers are confused, not just the policies.

"The less benign one is that one set of policies represents what they believe in; the other what they think they have to say to win.

"That's not a confusion, actually; that's a strategy and the British people deserve to have that strategy exposed before polling day."

Mr Blair acknowledged that "the tough thing about being in government, especially as time marches on, is that the disappointments accumulate, the public becomes less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt".

But he said the Tories' claim that it was Time for Change was "the most vacuous slogan in politics".

"As the issue has ceased to be, 'What makes me angry about the government', and has focused instead on 'If I get change, what change exactly am I getting', so the race has narrowed."

'Come clean'

Mr Blair has largely steered clear of British politics since leaving office, focusing on his role as a Middle East envoy, the work of his faith foundation and speaking engagements around the world.

Tony Blair has cast a long shadow over Gordon Brown's time as prime minister
Angus Robertson, SNP

However, the former prime minister - who is to publish his autobiography in September - has been criticised by opposition MPs for taking on a number of lucrative advisory roles with foreign firms.

The Conservatives have claimed there are questions about his "tax practices", accusing him of operating "a web of companies, some of which haven't published accounts, some of which have applied for permission to operate offshore".

Shadow Treasury minister Greg Hands said he was writing to the Commons Business Advisory Committee to ask it to investigate whether Mr Blair has breached any of the rules for former ministers.

He told the BBC: "It's nice to see Tony Blair making a speech he hasn't been paid for, but I think if Blair wants to make a return to domestic politics he first has to come clean about his own arrangements."

Liberal Democrat chief of staff Danny Alexander said: "I think if Tony Blair's appearance today does anything it will be to remind people of the failures of Labour over the last 13 years.

"The high expectations that were created when he was first elected and the huge disappointment verging on betrayal that many people now feel of what Labour's actually done."

'Disastrous move'

The SNP leader, Angus Robertson, said: "Tony Blair has cast a long shadow over Gordon Brown's time as prime minister and now he is coming back to do the same in the election campaign.

"Bringing back a man who faced police questioning over cash for honours and is widely reviled for taking the country into an illegal war in Iraq at a time when we need to rebuild trust in politics is a disastrous move for Labour."

Hywel Williams, of Plaid Cymru, said: "If this is Labour's 'if all else fails roll in Blair' strategy then they must really be struggling."

I do know that he's a great turn-off to a great deal of people
Peter Kilfoyle, Labour MP

Several of Mr Blair's close allies while he was prime minister, such as Business Secretary Lord Mandelson and former communications director Alastair Campbell, are also playing a key role in the campaign.

David Hill, former Labour communications director, told the BBC he believed Mr Blair would be an asset because he would appeal to key marginal voters who voted for him in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

"He has a special appeal to those people and he will be of immense value on the trail if for no other reason," he said.

But Labour MP Peter Kilfoyle, who is standing down at the election, told the BBC: "I think he epitomises all that people see as wrong about New Labour. I do know that he's a great turn-off to a great deal of people."



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