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Blair is fighting for his political life

Labor Party gathers amid voter disenchantment

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BOURNEMOUTH, England — Early in his tenure, Prime Minister Tony Blair faced an explosive charge that his government did a political favor in return for a $1.5 million party donation.

He went on television and said, "I think that most people who have dealt with me think that I am a pretty straight sort of guy."

Just like that, the crisis was over.

Monday, his Labor Party, sullen and rebellious, gathered in this Channel resort for its annual conference, and trust is no longer so easy to come by. Blair is fighting for his political life.

" 'Trust me' will only remind a skeptical nation of the last time they did," said Jonathan Freedland, a columnist at The Guardian, referring to the British government's attempt to justify the war in Iraq by saying Saddam Hussein had unconventional weapons.

Only six years ago, Blair won a landslide election, the leader of a party rebranded as "New Labor."

But New Labor's original stated purpose was to reform the creaking British welfare state, and polls show that voters are even more disenchanted with Blair's performance at home than with his actions abroad.

Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer and Blair's competitor in the party, called on Monday for party members to "take the hard road" toward social justice and remain "true to our Labor values." Blair will address the conference today.

The Labor Party's left wing and newly militant union leaders have said they will dispute Blair's proposals to give management autonomy to high-performing hospitals within the National Health Service, to let businesses sponsor schools and to finance the costs of higher education by raising tuition.

Blair has vowed not to withdraw any of the public service proposals that have angered many Labor traditionalists. He has also defended his actions regarding Iraq and pledged to seek a third term.

A third term is still possible. Blair's loss of popularity has not yet threatened his grip on power or even the likelihood that he will be re-elected in two years. The opposition Conservatives are in disarray.

But he is facing the gravest crisis of his tenure, and many people are saying he should step aside.

Blair's close alliance with an American president who is deeply unpopular in Britain has damaged his public image. The failure to find unconventional weapons in Iraq has undermined the principal rationale he put forward to justify the war, and as a result, his credibility has suffered.

Blair's mission this week is to regain traction. British elections are decided on domestic issues, and Blair says he is determined to direct his government's energies to subjects like crime, health, education and transportation.