Foreign office minister Bill Rammell said Israel should halt settlement building, stop destroying Palestinian homes and relax the restrictions upon freedom of movement which exist throughout Gaza and the West Bank

Speaking at Labour’s annual party conference in Bournemouth on England's south coast, the undersecretary of state claimed the Middle East was now at a crossroads which would either lead to peace or an even more bloody conflict.

Rammell told a fringe meeting attended by ambassadors, trade union members, “There has got to be an end to the destruction of Palestinian homes and the building of settlements by Israelis. Bluntly, those settlements are illegal under the fourth Geneva Convention and a huge obstacle to peace.”

Israeli threats 'unacceptable'

He added, “The threats to expel or even kill (Palestinian president) Yasir Arafat are wholly unacceptable and we have made that clear to the Israeli Government. Any act against Yasir Arafat will not resolve the situation, it will simply harden the people and further radicalise Palestinians.”

As undersecretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, Rammell has an important role in shaping the British government’s attitude towards the conflict.

Such strong criticisms represent a substantial break from the rhetoric of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has angered many by turning his attention away from the Middle East, though Hammell did pledge support for the ill-fated "roadmap" plan, which Blair believes is the way forward for negotiations on Palestinian statehood.

UK chancellor defends traditional Labour values

Brown rallies party faithful

With Blair's ratings in freefall, his main rival Gordon Brown sought to rally the Labour rank-and-file with a robust call for them to stay true to their governing party's values.

The chancellor of the exchequer's speech to the conference, and the warm response it earned from delegates, set the bar high for Blair who will be confronting his party’s sceptics on Tuesday.

"Have confidence in our principles," Brown said as he wound up a passionate defence of his economic policies.

"Have confidence that these principles can be advanced in Labour policies for our time," he said.

"Have confidence that Labour values are the values of the British people. This Labour Party - best when we are boldest. Best when we are united. Best when we are Labour."

Poll slump

Brown's address in Bournemouth, on England's south coast, followed a new opinion poll Monday in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, revealing that 74% of voters now are dissatisfied or unhappy with Blair's government.

Seventy percent said Blair had "lost touch with ordinary working people," and 54% said it was wrong for Britain to get involved in the Iraq conflict.

Labour itself won the support of only 37%, the lowest since Blair took over its leadership in 1994.

Brown has long been regarded as Blair's main rival within Labour, and he remains untainted by the fallout that has followed the Iraq war, including the suicide in July of government weapons expert David Kelly.  

On Iraq, Brown made only a passing reference, saying it was "right to back our leader Tony Blair" in his efforts "to bring security and reconstruction"

In a hall packed with fellow ministers and delegates, he touted the economic success of six years of Labour government, in a speech peppered with references to social justice and traditional Labour values.

"While America and Japan have been in recession, while half of Europe is still in recession, Britain with a Labour Government, pursuing Labour policies, has achieved economic growth in every year, indeed in every quarter of every year, for the whole six and a half years of this Labour government," he said. 

But on Iraq, Brown made only a passing reference, saying it was "right to back our leader Tony Blair" in his efforts "to bring security and reconstruction" in the wake of the US-led war against Saddam Hussein.

Political analysts expect Blair to use his speech Tuesday to try and reassert his authority over Labour in the face of internal opposition to his domestic reform agenda.

Most controversial among those reforms are plans to jack up university tuition fees, and the granting of more management autonomy to selected hospitals within the underfunded and understaffed National Health Service.