Blair works hard for his reward to wealth

CBI conference: Labour leader wins biggest share of applause with pledges on competition and inflation economy
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The Independent Online


Tony Blair promised his full backing yesterday for those who become wealthy through hard work, and was rewarded with a longer ovation for his speech to the CBI annual conference than Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister.

Pledging full support for a competitive, low-inflation economy, Mr Blair rejected as senseless penal rates of taxation."They are gone for good. I want a tax regime where through hard work, risk and success, people can become wealthy. Britain needs successful people in business, who can become rich by their success." His ovation lasted 55 seconds, 12 more than Mr Heseltine, who rounded off the day's session calling for relentless efforts by business to improve competitiveness.

The reaction to Mr Blair from many business leaders in the hall was positive, counteracting a careful distancing on Sunday by the CBI leadership, which has been under pressure from Tory members to take a less emollient line towards Labour. Sir Bryan Nicholson, CBI president, said: "Tony Blair's speech was about general reassurance and not much about specifics. Michael Heseltine's speech was detailed and specific about what is happening and what is going to happen." He saw this as reassurance that the Government was not going to throw away the economic gains it had made and act imprudently.

But Sir Michael Perry, chairman of Unilever, after a brief private word with Mr Blair outside the meeting, described it as a serious speech that deliberately addressed the concerns of industry and sought to give honest answers. "To that extent it will have won a lot of friends at the conference, and in the minds of many people it will have proved that there are serious policies being considered."

Sir Michael said that the issues highlighted by Mr Blair were "right in the middle of the bullseye", even if people disagreed with his views. "I think he addressed them fairly and squarely. That will give a lot of comfort to people."

Mr Blair identified key issues on his agenda, including an end to economic boom and bust, a clear target for inflation, a tax regime to encourage investment and domestic savings, partnership in limited but key areas between the private and public sectors, improvement of infrastructure, and Europe and the single market. But if there was one priority above all else it was education, which he described as the "passion of my government". He added: "Get it right and a lot else falls into place.Get it wrong and economic underperformance as well as social decay beckon."

Tackling the Social Chapter and the minimum wage, Mr Blair said: "The truth - uncomfortable for parts of the left and right - is that the minimum wage and the Social Chapter will neither destroy nor build a better economy". The Social Chapter was a set of principles rather than detailed legislation, and a Labour government would judge each piece of legislation on its merits. "I have no intention of agreeing to anything and everything that emerges from the EU. But an empty-chair policy, which is what we have at the moment, is not good business or good politics."

Business would be consulted on the level at which any minimum wage would be set and how it would be implemented. Parts of business already understood that it was neither efficient nor fair to pay people as little as possible. He also pointed out that a minimum wage had not stopped Germany or the US from being competitive.