Blair scorns furious union leaders

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Tony Blair last night rejected demands from furious trade-union leaders for Stephen Byers, his employment spokesman, to be sacked over unscripted remarks in a fish restaurant which led to reports that the historic links with the unions and Labour were to be severed.

"He's not going to be sacked," one senior Blair aide said. This puts the Labour leadership in a head-to-head confrontation with some of the most influential trade-union leaders in Britain after the clashes at the Blackpool TUC conference. Most unusually, even the TUC general secretary, the normally diplomatic John Monks, entered the fray. In his final address to the annual congress, he pointedly accused the party of creating "confusion" rather than "clarity".

"Millions in this country are desperate for a change of government," Mr Monks said. "I am looking for a surer touch from them in future." Union leaders registered their unanimous anger that their deliberations at the conference had been hijacked by the briefings and statements from Labour. The row over party-union links was preceded by widespread coverage of Labour's plans to curb industrial action and Mr Blair's call for a ballot in the Royal Mail dispute.

Ken Cameron, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, and George Brumwell, leader of the construction union Ucatt, were even more blunt.

"If Mr Byers was not setting out official policy," Mr Cameron said, "he should be sacked immediately in order to reassure the trade-union movement." Mr Brumwell said: "He should be dealt with severely and quickly." The anger showed by the union leaders was almost unprecedented; it is rare for senior figures in the trade-union movement to call for the dismissal of a member of a Labour shadow cabinet.

Behind the attacks on Mr Byers lies a deeper resentment at the Labour leadership for appearing to hijack the TUC conference for its own modernising agenda. Mr Blair used the conference to assure the electorate that he will not be "in the pocket" of the trade unions if Labour win the next election.

The unguarded remarks by Mr Byers over grilled sole in the Seafood Restaurant, in Blackpool, gained credence because they rang true. Labour's leadership acknowledges that the influence of the trade unions is being curtailed - Tom Sawyer, the party's general secretary, is embarked on streamlining the NEC, including a review of seats allocated to trade unions; the block vote is also set to fall, as party membership grows.

The sticking-point for party traditionalists is over severing all links with the unions, which remain Labour's paymasters.

Mr Blair is keen to show he is not in hock to the unions. His advisers may count the disputes as unfortunate but not unhelpful if it gets that message across in the longer term.

The party sought to deflect attention from the Byers row last night, issuing the agenda for its conference later this month when Gordon Brown, the shadow chancellor, will face a constituency backlash over his plans for the abolition of universal child benefit for 16- to 18-year- olds. There is fierce opposition to plans to use the money for training schemes. Some constituencies "deplore" the proposal, and Hull North CLP, the seat of Kevin MacNamara, warned it would be "catastrophic for many low-income families."