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2006-09-27,3:09 PM

Britain's Blair rocks party faithful with farewell

By Katherine Baldwin

MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - It was a fitting farewell for a man who once dreamed of being a rock star.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's final speech as leader to his party's annual rally on Tuesday had all the carefully crafted razzmatazz of his first landslide victory and was greeted with the same euphoria among the Labour faithful.


Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair speaks during his keynote speech on the third day of the Labour Party's annual conference in Manchester, northern England, September 26, 2006. (REUTERS/Phil Noble)
He left no doubt that he will be a tough act to follow.

Some critics may have balked at his wistful tone or his familiar puns, but many agreed he gave an effortless display of the skills that helped the Labour Party win three straight elections.

"Love him or loathe him, it was a leader's speech," said Tony Woodley, general Secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, a frequent thorn in the premier's side.

As Blair bounded onto the stage, trendy music from popular boy band "Take That" filled the cavernous conference hall, reminding Labour of the "Cool Britannia" message that helped it sweep to power in 1997.

"Never forget where you've come here from. Never pretend that it's all real. Some day soon this will be someone else's dream," went the lyrics as the Labour love-in began.

Moments earlier, groups of delegates in the audience held up placards reading "We love you! Yeah, yeah, yeah!", "Too Young to retire!", "Tony, you made Britain better" and "Winner".

The accolades contrasted with the hostile reception recently given to Blair at a trade union conference where a group of activists walked out bearing placards saying "Tony must go!".

Blair's youth and boundless enthusiasm earned him lofty popularity ratings at the start of his premiership.

But his standing has taken a nosedive in past years following his support for the 2003 U.S.-led war on Iraq and amid public disillusionment with nearly a decade of his government.

There was no hint of the recent infighting over the Labour leadership at this stage-managed event however. There was no abuse and certainly no protests over the Iraq war.

Blair's jokes brought the house down, especially when he waded in to a controversy over something his wife reportedly said that has stolen the spotlight in this northern town.

Cherie Blair reportedly accused finance minister Gordon Brown of lying when he told the rally on Monday he had considered it a privilege to work with the prime minister.

She denies the slur although her hostility towards Brown, who is anxious to succeed her husband, is widely reported.

"At least I don't have to worry about her running off with the bloke next door!" joked Blair, who aspired to being a different kind of performer when he played the guitar in student band "Ugly Rumours".

Blair and Cherie, after one encore, made their exit to rapturous applause, leaving many in the crowd wondering if their next leader could create the same winning formula.

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