Righteous indignation over Blair

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The Independent Online

Political Editor

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, was yesterday facing a concerted Tory attack as a premature bout of spring election fever was triggered by remarks in which the Labour leader explicitly linked his opposition to Conservatism to his values as a Christian.

Tory Ministers and MPs queued up to denounce Mr Blair, a practising Anglican, for an Easter newspaper article which they lost no time in claiming asserted that Conservatism was incompatible with Christianity.

As Conservative backbenchers accused Mr Blair of "sanctimoniousness", the Home Office minister Ann Widdecombe, a Roman Catholic convert, accused Mr Blair of pursuing the distinctly secular goal of "self-interest in the pursuit of power" and declared that the Labour leader "is not the right man to lecture us on religious morals".

In the article which enraged Tories - all the more so because it appeared in the traditionally pro-Conservative Sunday Telegraph - Mr Blair declared: "My views of Christian values led me to oppose what I perceived to be a narrow view of self interest that Conservatism - particularly its more modern Right wing form - represents."

The Labour leader heavily qualified his point by making clear his dislike of politicians who wore "God on their sleeves", that he did not regard himself as less "selfish than anyone else" and that he was not saying that "Christians should only vote Labour".

But he added: "Every human being is self-interested. But Tories, I think, have too selfish a definition of that self-interest. They fail to look beyond to the community and the individual's relationship with the community. That is the essential reason why I am on the left rather than on the right."

Miss Widdecombe retorted yesterday: "I think it is a bit rich of Tony Blair to accuse the Conservatives of narrow self-interest which is incompatible with Christianity when every single thing the Labour Party has done over the last three years has been undoubtedly self-interest in the pursuit of power."

But the Venerable George Austin, the independent minded-Archdeacon of York, revealed himself as a Labour supporter in the next election and declared that Tory MPs were creating a "storm in a teacup" over the article. He said Mr Blair had not been saying "that you couldn't be a Tory and a Christian. He was arguing that Christianity had swayed him against the extreme right wing and Marxism."

The Archdeacon of York said he welcomed Tony Blair's comments about faith and politics and revealed he would be voting for Labour at the next election.

More angry Tories later added their voices to the chorus of protest about the "sanctimonious" Mr Blair. Dame Jill Knight (Edgbaston) said: "It has always seemed to me that when politicians feel they must claim Christian principles as a reason why people should vote for them, which is precisely what Mr Blair is doing, they have abandoned moral thought themselves.

"Christianity is above and beyond party politics. I remember Jimmy Carter in the United States trying exactly the same trick, but people found out how hollow it all was. In the whole of my political life, I have never thought it right to claim that because I held Christian principles was a reason why people should vote for me."

Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire) commented: "Tony Blair becomes more sanctimonious as the election approaches. He now not only sees himself as Prime Minister but as Archbishop of Canterbury as well."