Election '97: Blair shies from encounter with Harrods chief

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Tony Blair threw his campaign schedule into chaos yesterday to avoid a potentially embarrassing meeting with Mohamed Al Fayed, the owner of Harrods.

The Labour leader refrained from boarding his campaign helicopter until Mr Fayed's had landed and the man at the centre of the cash for questions controversy had driven away.

Mr Blair's delay, at Battersea Heliport, south London, came when his press secretary, Alastair Campbell, spotted two photographers smiling gleefully on the tarmac.

They had learned that Mr Fayed's Sikorsky 76 was due to land from his estate in Boxted, Surrey, just as Mr Blair was due to board his Cab Air Squirrel bound for a meeting with children at a school in Redditch.

"Their eyes lit up and we realised that a meeting could have been misconstrued," said a senior Labour source. "We don't have anything against anyone, but a meeting could have been misconstrued."

As a result, Mr Blair joined his wife, Cherie, back inside the terminal and waited until Mr Fayed had been whisked away.

Last night, a spokesman for Harrods said Mr Fayed believed Mr Blair had missed a great opportunity. "It was a great chance to have a Livingstone/Stanley meeting because he could have thanked his greatest benefactor."

He could have had the opportunity to say, 'Hello, Mohamed, thanks a bunch for getting rid of all those Tory ministers'." The delay, and a refuelling stop in Elstree, meant that Mr Blair's visit to the Arrow Vale high school in Redditch was cut short.

However, he was given a loud welcome and, despite the reason for cutting short his visit, he told pupils not to feel cynical about politicians.

Support among passers-by and nearby residents suggested that the constituency - identified by The Independent as an area as vital as Basildon for victory - was turning to Labour.

"I'm going to vote for him," said Patricia Kinsella, 55, who lives opposite the school. Although a Labour supporter, she attends Studley Conservative Club, where waverers are beginning to surface.

"I've begun to notice a few people switching. People are fed up of unemployment and sleaze."

Later in the day, the Labour leader travelled to Warwick University where he spoke by satellite to businessmen and women in Malaysia and Hong Kong. The talk was of technology, manufacturing and the training of a "flexible workforce", one of Mr Blair's major themes.

Mr Blair tried hard not to acknowledge it, but it was clear from the behaviour of his hosts at Warwick and his satellite correspondents, that they viewed him as the next prime minister.