Blair has only sympathy for doomed plant

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FUJITSU'S SLOGAN, "Everything is possible", was borrowed yesterday by Tony Blair as he explained to 600 workers from the Japanese-owned semi- conductor factory in his constituency that he was not to blame for them being made redundant.

The Prime Minister managed to utter enough soothing words to win applause, despite those words offering not much more than condolences. His presence buoyed the spirits of those soon to be unemployed. But only until he left; then the bleakness of their prospects weighed down on them again.

The Prime Minister's visit was the fulfilment of a promise made two weeks ago, on the day the Japanese factory added its name to the lengthening list of recent closures in the North-east. Given that the doomed plant fell within Mr Blair's Sedgefield constituency, he could hardly ignore it. So instead, he packaged up the bad news with the good, and embarked on a three-and-a-half hour, carefully choreographed charm offensive that culminated in the unveiling of a plaque at Avco Trust. The financial services company, housed in a new, purpose-built office on Doxford International Business Park, with its 220 new jobs, was "a very great boost to the region indeed", he said.

But official openings and new buildings are no guarantee against disaster, as the workers at Fujitsu have learnt. Their plant was opened by the Queen in 1991 - as was the Siemens microchip plant in nearby north Tyneside, which recently announced its closure with the loss of 1,100 jobs.

"I'm sure Mr Blair isn't going to be able to offer us anything," said one Fujitsu employee, arriving for work at 8am yesterday. "Absolutely nothing," agreed another. "His visit is six months' late. It's not going to help us now."

But, against the odds, Mr Blair managed to give them something. At the end of individual chats and a speech in the canteen, the assembled staff broke into spontaneous applause. He had told them that he cared, he would do everything he could to ameliorate the situation, and, above all, what had happened was not his fault.

Steven Fozzard, representative of Fujitsu's employee committee forum, said the workers were impressed that Mr Blair had taken the trouble to visit. "He was clearly behind schedule but that wasn't going to stop him speaking to people one to one," he said. "The general view is that he has come here to try and give us as much assistance as possible ... We're 600 people, but we have partners, and the impact on family life is important. I am sure, as a family man, Mr Blair understands that."

But no matter how much sympathy Mr Blair expressed, the overall feeling after he left was one of anti-climax. "There's no way he was going to turn round and say, `I've got a job for you,' and we all want to hear those words," said Mr Fozzard.

"This is devastation. This plant and companies like it in the North-east were brought here as the salvation for the area. People who came here seven years ago never dreamt this would happen. This was sunrise industry. This was jobs for life."

Mr Blair spent over an hour inside the Fujitsu building at Newton Aycliffe, Co Durham. He met the task force set up by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Peter Mandelson, talked to staff and, finally, inspected the so-called "opportunity centre" in the foyer, where social security leaflets and pamphlets with titles such as "Be Better Off Working. Have You Seen What's Out There Now?" vied for prominence.

But the view of most employees is that there is precisely nothing in the North-east now, and they are planning to move away from the region. "I don't fancy my chances of getting a job round here," said Paul Atkinson, a product supervisor. Graham Clark, an apprentice technician who has worked at the plant for three years, agreed. "The Government is trying to help us get jobs, but the prospects of getting a job in the area are very bleak."

The bad news for the North-east comes almost daily. Staff at the engineering giant Vickers are bracing themselves for an announcement of job cuts and partial closure of one of its two tank factories at Newcastle and Leeds. The Newcastle plant, which employs 600 people, is thought to be more at risk.

After Fujitsu, Mr Blair sped on to the Avco Trust, via the hugely successful Nissan plant in Sunderland, but was confronted there by a posse of protesters from the US crane-maker Grove Cranes, which has just announced the closure of its North-east operation, with the loss of 670 jobs. Turning disadvantage to advantage, Mr Blair's fast response unit forestalled any trouble by inviting the protesters to a private meeting.

"We were quite overwhelmed to be invited in to see the Prime Minister," said Tony Lawrence, 53, who has worked at the crane factory for 29 years. "He listens to our point of view. He said he would do as much as he could... He can't wave a magic wand, as he said, but we're over the moon we've seen him."