Branson is won over by Blair `charm offensive'

Virgin and the Labour leader: Tycoon `impressed' by party strategy and implies endorsement after business breakfast show

JOHN RENTOUL

Political Correspondent

Richard Branson, the Virgin group tycoon, yesterday became the latest in a series of business celebrities to lend Tony Blair their credibility, as the Labour leader toured the Gatwick airport base of Mr Branson's airline.

Mr Blair, in a back-to-back charm offensive, spoke to Labour Party members on Thursday night and local business people at a working breakfast yesterday.

Mr Branson, who was at the breakfast, declared himself "impressed" by the man who "could be prime minister in 18 months' time", asked him for more access to Heathrow airport in west London and then showed Mr Blair around one of his jumbo jets at Gatwick, West Sussex.

Despite protesting that he "always stayed out of party politics", Mr Branson said: "I believe and hope the new Labour Party will be pro-competition and pro-consumer."

He added that he supported Labour's pledge to ban cigarette advertising and, when asked how he would vote, hinted that he might explicitly declare for Mr Blair closer to the election: "I keep that private but we may decide to go public on this nearer the election," he said.

Mr Branson's implied endorsement follows recent approving noises from the media mogul Rupert Murdoch and the currency speculator George Soros.

Mr Blair addressed party members and business people in successive question- and-answer sessions in the same suite of the Forte Crest hotel at Gatwick. His aides said that the double performance at the same venue underlined the Labour leader's claim that - unlike some politicians - he was saying the same thing to party and public audiences.

In fact, his language was different. At the party meeting, he condemned "penpushers and bureaucrats in the health service with their company cars", while at the business breakfast he soberly criticised the "dramatic increase in the cost of administration in the NHS". He also added "tackling the evils of long-term unemployment" to the prepared text of his list of Labour's economic priorities for the business people to match his fierce rhetoric of the night before.

But both groups came away satisfied. Most Labour doubters, who demanded to know why he would not promise to renationalise Railtrack if the Conservatives sold it, seemed satisfied with Mr Blair's passionate defence. "The Liberal Democrats can promise anything they like - and they do. But we are going to be in government - they aren't," he said.

"I cannot honestly say that, as we sit around the Cabinet table, the first thing we would spend money on would be buying back the share capital."

Sceptical business people described his performance, downplaying demands to recreate a "feelgood factor", as "very plausible". Mr Blair said: "If we got the feelgood factor back in the way we had in the late Eighties, then we would probably have done the wrong thing."

Peter Coleman, a company director, said of the Labour leader: "He's quite an impressive chap. The question is whether in fact in a socialist government, where there are going to be 50, 60 or 70 `Old Labour' MPs, how he's actually going to carry out the ideas which he's putting over, which are very sound. I was encouraged, certainly."

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