and MARY FAGAN
Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, yesterday precipitated a fierce party political battle for the hearts and minds of British business leaders by urging the Confederation of British Industry to accept it was the Tories rather than Labour who were on their side.
In an attempt to reverse the success of Tony Blair on Monday at the CBI conference in Birmingham, Mr Lang launched an unusually direct appeal to business to recognise its own interests and come out in support of the Conservatives.
He warned it was a mistake to try to be neutral and said: "You cannot afford not to take sides". But within minutes, CBI leaders rejected his advice and insisted the Confederation would not take sides. Sir Bryan Nicholson, CBI president, said: "We didn't take sides at the last general election." Mr Lang was entitled to his view, but, "overwhelmingly members support a neutral line".
Mr Lang said his own contacts with businessmen had made it clear that they were still on side with the Tory party, and would "see through the candyfloss" of Labour's position. He said: "I believe the CBI and all businessmen will address their own interests when it comes to deciding who to support in the next election".
He added: "What I am telling the CBI today in essence is that we have an agenda that is at one with your agenda. It is working - you and we are advancing economic success at almost unprecedented levels. Do not put that at risk by listening to beguiling phrases you get from some other political parties."
He said Labour still had policies "the antithesis of a party that claims to be friendly to industry and to jobs". He attacked Mr Blair for saying the European Social Chapter was a series of principles, saying it was a binding treaty that would lead to detailed legislation.
"To the extent that [Mr Blair] was specific on anything yesterday he seems to have been wrong," he said. But the applause following his speech lasted only 23 seconds, less than half the 55-second ovation accorded to Mr Blair.
The Labour Party denounced Mr Lang's speech, saying it was "clear that Tony Blair is setting the political agenda" and that Mr Lang would do better to concentrate on how "the Tory government and industry can work together" than attack the Opposition leader.
The CBI's neutrality was confirmed in a straw poll by the Independent among departing delegates, most of whom said it did not matter who was in power, so long as their policies supported business.
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