MP accuses Blair of 'conning the people'

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

The drip-drip of attacks on Tony Blair from his own ranks conspicuously failed to dry up yesterday as a left-winger took to the airwaves to accuse him of "taking Thatcher's ideas to try and con the people in the South that we are an electable party".

Ronald Campbell, an uncompromising hard-left Campaign Group member and MP for Blyth Valley, followed up the outburst on BBC Radio Newcastle by declaring on BBC Radio 4's The World at One: "The Labour Party within itself is being dismantled."

The episode came as David Church, the left-wing leader of Walsall district council, returned from holiday in India to pledge that there would be "no turning back" from his controversial restructuring policies.

Denouncing as a "hatchet job" Labour's decision to suspend the local party following allegations of intimidation and abuse, Mr Church declared: "If we do not continue with our plans, then local government is finished."

John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, brushed aside Mr Campbell's comments, but while the Northumberland MP is relatively unknown, the remarks will add to the embarrassment that has accumulated for the Labour leader over the last six days. It was gleefully seized upon as another Labour gift by the Tory chairman, Brian Mawhinney, 24 hours before he set off on a visit to the area.

A triumphant Dr Mawhinney told a Central Office news conference yesterday: "Last week I set off for Walsall and in between leaving Euston and arriving in Birmingham, the Labour Party suspended the Walsall Labour party. I haven't yet set off for Newcastle and already one of the local Members of Parliament has told the local radio station that Tony Blair is ... attempting to con the electorate in the south of England by stealing ideas off Margaret Thatcher. Frankly I couldn't have put it better myself."

Dr Mawhinney said: "You haven't actually heard me use such violent language against Mr Blair ... it wasn't me who wrote John Edmonds' article last week, or Bill Morris's speech."

As he catalogued debts run up by Labour councils such as Birmingham and Manchester which were more than pounds 1bn in the red, Dr Mawhinney revealed that he would be taking his campaign to Bristol, Liverpool, some London boroughs and Monklands, the scandal-hit council in the seat of the late Labour leader, John Smith.

Critics of Mr Blair's leadership style or policy direction who have spoken out now include Roy Hattersley, the former deputy leader, Richard Burden, MP for Birmingham Northfield, Paul Flynn, MP for Newport West, former Shadow Cabinet colleague Bryan Gould, John Edmunds, leader of the GMB general union, Bill Morris, leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union, Peter Greenwood, chairman of the Association of District Councils and Derek Bateman, leader of the Labour group on the Association of County Councils.

More potential embarrassment looms for the Labour leader since the firefighters' and building workers' unions have managed to submit calls for a minimum wage of pounds 4.15 an hour onto the agenda of next month's Trades Union Congress annual conference in Brighton, East Sussex.