MANCHESTER, England – British Prime Minister Tony Blair dodged questions Sunday about who he favors to succeed him, saying the public was angry with his Labour Party for getting bogged down in political intrigue rather than running the country.
As the party's annual conference opened in Manchester, Blair said that he and his cabinet have decided the five-day event will focus on policy and avoid the political questions which have dominated the party's attention over the past weeks.
"The Labour Party went AWOL from the British public," Blair said. "It looked in on itself. It started all the infighting. The public out there are angry about that. They don't want to see their government do that. They want us to govern."
Blair has been embroiled in controversy about when he will leave office — he has said it will be in the next year — and the party has been consumed with speculation about who will succeed him.
It is widely expected that Gordon Brown, Blair's treasury chief, will take over as leader when the prime minister does step down.
In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. on Sunday, Blair reiterated his admiration for Brown, but sidestepped several direct questions as to whether he would support him, saying again that the conference is not a leadership contest.
He still declined to give a precise date for his departure. The next general election is expected in 2009.
Blair addresses the party Tuesday afternoon; Brown is to speak Monday.
In his own interview with BBC television on Sunday, Brown said a government led by him will continue to stand with the U.S. in the war on terror.
But he called for a greater emphasis on winning support for the fight, saying that military action needed to be combined with a "battle of ideas."
In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph newspaper, Brown was asked if he wanted to be as close to President Bush as Blair is. "I would hope I would have a strong relationship with all world leaders, including the president of America," he said.
Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said Sunday she supported Brown as the next leader of the party.
"I have always felt that Gordon was the person who would be a brilliant prime minister — was both most likely to succeed Tony, and also should," Beckett said during an interview on Sky News. "As far as I am concerned, it is Gordon Brown's time."