MANCHESTER, England – Tony Blair gave his last address to his Labour Party as prime minister on Tuesday, saying it is important to stay close to Washington in the fight against terrorism even though it can be hard to be the United States' strongest ally.
The 53-year-old leader acknowledged Tuesday it would be hard for him to leave office but said it was the right thing to do.
In a wistful but forward-looking speech, Blair told the party it must remain bold if it is to hold onto power and said the only legacy he cared about was Labour's winning a fourth term.
Delegates, grateful for the three straight election victories to which Blair led their party, listened raptly as he spoke and frequently interrupted him with cheers. Many waved supportive placards reading "Too young to retire" and "Tony, you made Britain better."
Blair fondly recalled his start in politics as a young Parliamentary candidate in 1983, and said Labour had changed the terms of debate in British politics during his time as leader.
"The truth is, you can't go on forever," he said. "That's why it is right that this is my last conference as leader."
"Of course it is hard to let go. But it is also right to let go. For the country, and for you, the party," he said during an hourlong speech.
Although Blair has long had a love-hate relationship with a party he's remade since taking its helm in 1994, he said he would always watch Labour's achievements with pride — whether or not it took his parting advice.
"Wherever I am, whatever I do, I'm with you," he said. "Wishing you well and wanting you to win. You're the future now, so make the most of it."
Blair said fighting terrorism would remain a tough challenge for Britain in the years after he leaves office. But he said it was crucial to stay close to the United States, despite the severe political damage he suffered for his tight relationship with President Bush and his support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
"Yes, it's hard sometimes to be America's strongest ally," he said, adding that close involvement in the European Union could also be difficult. "At the moment I know people only see the price of these alliances. Give them up and the cost in terms of power, weight and influence for Britain would be infinitely greater."
"Distance this country and you may find it's a long way back," he said.
Blair gave in to a fierce rebellion in the party to announce on Sept. 7 that he would step down within a year, although he has not set a precise date.
He offered warm praise for Treasury chief Gordon Brown, the man expected to succeed him, but stopped short of making an endorsement. Blair said Labour would never have won its three terms without Brown's contributions, but acknowledged their relationship had been strained at times.
"In no relationship at the top of any walk of life is it always easy, least of all in politics," he said. "(Brown) is a remarkable man, a remarkable servant to this country. And that is the truth."
Blair recited a litany of his government's accomplishments since he became prime minister in 1997.
He said Labour had built a strong economy for Britain, reduced child poverty and allowed gay couples to form civil partnerships. Free entry to many museums, a smoking ban and winning the 2012 Olympics for London were also on his list of achievements.
"Take a step back and be proud," he told his party. "This is a changed country."
Labour, he said, had so succeeded in remaking British politics that the opposition Conservative Party has moved away from the right and toward the center in response, he said.
"Don't lose heart from that," Blair said. "Take heart from it. We have changed the terms of political debate."
Michael Lauro, a local Labour lawmaker from Derbyshire, in central England, said he was considering retiring from politics himself, but that Blair's speech had changed his mind.
"I'm very emotional," he said, moving his eyeglasses to wipe his eyes. "It was a great farewell, but a very sad one. He turned the country around, and this is the best time the country has ever had and he's the best prime minister the country has ever had."
The address came a day after Brown strengthened his claim to the top job with a self-confident speech that gave the clearest picture yet of what kind of leader he would be.
He set out a centrist vision that suggested he agreed with Blair's view that Labour must stay focused on moderate voters to retain power. But he also sought support from the party's left with declarations of his commitment to core Labour values like social justice and fighting poverty.
Brown has denied he was behind the party rebellion that forced Blair to promise to resign within a year, but most believe he has been growing impatient for the prime minister to step aside so he can take office.
"Where over these years differences have been a distraction from what matters, I regret that and I know Tony does too," Brown said Monday.
He echoed Blair's call for Labour to stop obsessing about its internal politics and focus on policies that matter to Britons.
"The only reason any of us are here is that we are in politics as servants of the people," Brown said.