London (CNSNews.com) - He may have declared the "class war" dead in his Labor Party conference speech this week, but British Prime Minister Tony Blair has unleashed strong feelings and public debate over his labeling of the "forces of conservatism" as the enemy of Britain.
Conservative Party leader William Hague and a number of commentators have rejected Blair's suggestion that blame for everything wrong in Britain - and elsewhere - should be laid at conservatism's door.
Blair went so far as to attribute the death of Martin Luther King, the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, and the racist murder of a black London teenager to "the forces of conservatism."
He switched easily and frequently between targeting conservatism and the Conservative Party - which he painted as a "weird" fringe that supports fox-hunting, former Chilean dictator Augosto Pinochet, and hereditary lawmaking.
But in a series of television interviews Wednesday, Blair tried to minimize the damage by denying he was attacking all Tory voters, and stressing he was also at war with conservative elements within his own party - those on the left who oppose some "New Labor" ideology.
"If we want to make this country fit for the 21st century we have to take on those forces of conservatism, Left or Right."
He sought to capitalize on the impact of his speech by calling on Tories who felt uncomfortable in the present "extreme Conservative Party" to find a home in New Labor.
Blair appealed especially to those supportive of what he called "sensible engagement in Europe." Many conservatives are concerned that further integration into the European Union will whittle away at Britain's economic and political sovereignty.
In his speech, Blair had reminded listeners of differences within the Tories over Europe, noting that two leading pro-Europe party members, former ministers Kenneth Clark and Michael Heseltine, were "outcasts."
Hague accused Blair of revisionism by trying to blame conservatism for the ills of the past century.
"You've got to admire the nerve of it," Hague said in a radio interview. "but it is incredible hypocrisy to attack the forces of conservatism in this way."
These forces, he continued, included Winston Churchill, the Conservative prime minister who "led and saved this country in World War II.
"All through the 1950s it was Conservative governments which led the country to greater prosperity. Then Margaret Thatcher completely transformed the country in the 1980s. These were the forces of conservatism."
Spectator editor Boris Johnson joined the fray, arguing that Blair in fact owed a substantial debt to the "forces of conservatism."
"It is because these conservative forces smashed Labor at the polls for a generation that the party became more sensible, started to cut their ties with the unions, and at least pretended to do away with the 'old tax and spend.' Tony Blair owes his very position as leader of the Labor Party and Prime Minister to the forces of conservatism, and if he had a shred of decency, he would admit it."
Johnson urged Conservatives to respond to attacks in a more robust way, and not allow Blair and his advisors to define the battleground by highlighting issues that make the Tories appear "out of touch, old-fashioned and right-wing."
"The trick is not to surrender to his propaganda, but to reclaim the concept of conservatism ... If people can be convinced again that the Tories are a bunch of freedom-loving, peace-loving, tax-cutting, property-protecting, countryside-defending believers in Britain, then they might have the makings of a recovery."
A poll carried out for the London Times before Blair's speech, showed that support for the Conservative Party has slipped to 25 per cent, around the lowest point since it lost the 1997 election. Hague's performance rates a dismal 23 per cent "satisfied."
By contrast, Labor's support is up to 52 per cent, a record high for the mid-term of a British parliament. Satisfaction with Blair personally stands at 58 per cent, up from 49 per cent a month ago.