Business leaders rebuff Lang

CBI conference: Representatives defend their political neutrality 8 Government 'policy vacuum' on transport under fire
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Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, yesterday launched a furious onslaught on the CBI for dallying with Labour, but was immediately rebuffed by business leaders who insisted the employers would remain politically neutral.

In an attempt to reverse the resounding success of Tony Blair the day before at the CBI conference in Birmingham, Mr Lang told business to recognise its own interests and come out in public 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 rounded on Mr Lang and rejected his advice.

Sir Bryan Nicholson, CBI president, said: "We have never taken sides. We didn't take sides at the last general election." Mr Lang was entitled to his own view but "overwhelmingly members support a neutral line".

At a press conference just before his speech, Mr Lang said he would be urging industry to "address the reality and not just the vaporous outpourings to which they have been subjected". But the applause for his diatribe, in which he bluntly said business and the CBI would be mistaken to remain politically neutral, lasted 23 seconds, less than half the 55-second ovation accorded to Mr Blair.

In spite of strenuous attempts by the CBI to remain neutral and discuss politics on an issue by issue basis, Mr Lang said his own contacts with businesmen made clear they were still on side with the Tory Party, and in any case they would "see through the candyfloss" of Labour's position. "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, "I quite understand if any organisation wants to press its case on different political parties. 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 in fact a solemn and binding treaty that would lead inexorably to detailed legislation.

"To the extent that [Mr Blair] was specific on anything yesterday he seems to have been wrong."

CBI neutrality was confirmed by a straw poll by the Independent among departing delegates who said it did not matter who was in power as long as the policies supported business. There was a consensus that while Mr Blair had given delegates food for thought he had left many questions unanswered.

One delegate said: "Tony Blair won the day yesterday on his charm. But we still need to know more about the policies. He barely scratched the surface. There is a worry that Mr Blair would be isolated even as Prime Minister. When he speaks he often gives the impression of being a lone voice."

Sir Bryan, speaking after a transport debate in which the CBI had been bitterly critical of government policy, said the CBI's position was that it would spell out the policies with which it agreed and disagreed on both the Government and opposition sides, and it would support those appropriate to business.

"Now if one party happens to have more of those than another you can do your own adding up and draw your own conclusions as to where the centre of gravity of business opinion is." He added: "Political endorsement is quite a different thing because our members when they go to the ballot box make those decisions privately."

With CBI neutrality likely to be interpreted as an attack on the Government Sir Bryan took pains to say the Tories had been business-friendly.