TONY Blair embarks on a crucial conference week with criticism over his handling of the war in Iraq ringing in his ears and suggestions from perilously close to home that his Government has lost its way.

When someone as loyal as former Health Secretary Alan Milburn says the Government is losing its sense of purpose - as the MP for Darlington did in an interview with The Northern Echo late last week - it is a clear wake-up call.

Mr Blair has always had a grudging admiration for Margaret Thatcher, and his eve of conference declaration yesterday that there will be "no withdrawal" on controversial policies has echoes of the "Lady's not for turning" speech.

In relaunching his sense of purpose, Mr Blair has to find the right balance between being tough and ensuring that he does not appear to be failing to listen to the justified concerns of the British people.

Most fundamentally, he has to accept that his Government is tainted by spin. He must listen carefully and learn that it is honesty and transparency that we want most from our politicians.

But as he prepares for his conference battles with the unions over key policies such as foundation hospitals and tuition fees, he will take consolation in the knowledge that the Opposition remains limp and uninspiring.

He described his mid-term troubles yesterday as "a test of my mettle and character".

Sadly for the state of democracy in our country, the test is being made too easy.

Hope for truth

THE horror of the last hours of Ronald Maddison at the secret weapons laboratory at Porton Down half a century ago has been revealed by former ambulance driver Alfred Thornhill.

His fresh evidence has helped bring home the full extent of an outrage which took place in the name of the British government.

Let us hope that a fresh inquest into the North-East airman's death this week will finally expose the truth that Mr Maddison's family has been searching for, no matter how shameful it may be.