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Buoyant Blair celebrates 10 years


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LONDON, England (CNN) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been celebrating 10 years as leader of his ruling Labor Party after facing down his parliamentary critics over the war in Iraq.

Insisting he was right to back the war, he told MPs Tuesday they should "rejoice" -- a word used by his predecessor Margaret Thatcher in the Falklands war -- in an "act of liberation for the Iraqi people."

He repeated his defiant tone Wednesday in the final question time session in parliament before the summer recess.

"We acted on the intelligence we had. I defy anyone to look at that intelligence and say they would have not come to the same conclusion," he said.

"I believe we took the right decision. I stand by that decision. And I believe the world, Iraq and the region are better places as a result of it."

Britain's media Wednesday hailed Blair's ebullient performance in the previous day's debate about flawed intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

He had "seen off his critics," said a leading article in the UK's biggest-selling daily, The Sun .

"Blair survives Commons Iraq debate unscathed," said a headline in The Guardian.

"He showed he is a great survivor," said the Conservative opposition-supporting Daily Telegraph.

Paying its tribute to his 10 years as Labor leader as "a decade to be proud of," the Daily Mirror tabloid said: "Mr. Blair still stands strong at the heart of government."

By contrast British media were scathing about the performance of Conservative leader Michael Howard -- described as "disappointing," "awful," "unhappy" and "struggling."

"Tory leader fails to land blows in soft focus attack," said one headline in the Financial Times.

"Howard's failure to hit home plunges Tories into despair," said another in the Independent.

"The Tory leader dried, he shriveled like a punctured birthday balloon," said the usually supportive Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail.

CNN's European Political Correspondent Robin Oakley said that Blair, who became prime minister in 1997 after winning a landslide election, is now the British Labour Party's most successful leader -- though Europe is his least successful area.

Blair told Wednesday's question time session he was happy to compare his 10-year record with Howard's.

"Under this Labour Government we've had more people in work, the first ever minimum wage, the lowest interest rates and inflation for years... and crime down."

He said when Howard was employment secretary, unemployment rose, when he was home secretary, police numbers fell, "and we should never forget you were the one who introduced the poll tax.

"So I think when we are comparing 10-year records, we do pretty well," he added to roars of Labour support.

Howard for his part said crime was up 15.5 percent under Labour and complained that Blair's leadership had been "10 years of deep frustration" for his party.

On crime he said: "Haven't we just had more slogans, more spin, more gimmicks and more initiatives -- none of which are tough on crime or tough on the causes of crime."

Blair was said to be putting finishing touches to a reshuffle of his Cabinet Wednesday before getting ready for a family holiday in the Caribbean.

Veteran Labour MP and former foreign office minister George Foulkes said he was sure that Blair would stay on in Downing Street, and to good effect.

He told BBC radio: "I think it is absolutely certain (that Blair will carry on to the next election), and I think that we will win the next election, not with as big a majority as we have got now, but with a substantial majority."


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