Blair bows out with hand on heart

Tony Blair will step down as prime minister of the “greatest nation on earth” on June 27th, he confirmed today.

The prime minister announced his resignation in front of local activists in his Sedgefield constituency. Outlining his decade in power, Mr Blair paid lip service to his own shortcomings but insisted Britain had changed for the better since 1997.

Mr Blair spoke of the social and cultural transformation he had witnessed in Britain, highlighting the minimum wage, gay rights and improved maternity cover. He concluded: “This is the greatest nation on earth”.

A leaked memo before his last Labour party conference said Mr Blair’s exit strategy should be to “leave the crowds wanting more”. However, today he acknowledged that a decade in power was “long enough.for me and more especially for the country.”

The prime minister acknowledged that he had failed to live up to the “great expectations” surrounding him and the Labour party in May 1997.

“Great expectations, not fulfilled in every part for sure,” he said.

But Mr Blair encouraged people to think back to a decade ago and consider how much the country has improved.

He said: “Go back to 1997, think back, no, really think back. Think about your own living standards then and now. Visit your local school.Ask when you last had to wait a year or more on a hospital waiting list or hear of pensioners freezing to death.

“There is only one government since 1945 that can say all of the following; more jobs, fewer unemployed, better health and education results, lower crime and higher economic growth in every quarter. Only one government – this one.”

However, the prime minister declined from listing off the statistics and achievement that have characterised his responses in prime minister’s questions.

Instead Mr Blair attempted to strike a humble note throughout his speech and admitted that he had made mistakes. He declined to outline what he considered these to be, insisting this judgement “is for you the people to make”.

The shadow of Iraq was evident throughout his speech – not least because local antiwar protests had gathered outside of the Labour club. But Mr Blair returned to a familiar theme and stressed his personal conviction in removing Saddam.

He called on people to accept on thing: “Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right”.

“I may have been wrong, that’s your call. But believe one thing if nothing else – I did what I thought was right for this country.”

His speech focused more on Labour’s legacy and vision than scoring political points over his critics. But it contained a coded warning to David Cameron, buoyed by recent opinion polls, that government is not as easy as opposition.

It is easy to listen to competing voices in opposition, he said. “In government you have to give the answer, not an answer, the answer,” Mr Blair continued.

“In time you realise putting the country first doesn’t mean doing the right thing according to conventional wisdom or the latest snapshot of opinion. It means doing what you genuinely believe to be right.

“That your duty of prime minister is to act according to your conviction”.

The prime minister made only the briefest reference to the Labour leadership battle that has now begun. It is expected that he will not officially endorse Gordon Brown as his successor until tomorrow.

A new Labour leader and deputy leader will be elected at a special leadership conference on June 24th.

Mr Blair addressed his constituency supporters after confirming his intent to resign to Cabinet colleagues. Mr Brown paid a “warm” tribute to his long-term colleague.