Blair promises to defend UK industry against 'arbitrary and unjustified' tariffs

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair issued a strongly worded rebuke to George Bush over the steel trade war yesterday, as concern grew that his "special relationship" with the American President had failed to bring rewards in the transatlantic dispute.

Mr Blair condemned the decision to impose tariffs of up to 30 per cent on steel imported into the United States as "arbitrary and unjustified" and promised immediate action to protect British industry.

But Downing Street was forced to defend Mr Blair's relationship with President Bush after the Prime Minister's personal intervention failed to stop Washington imposing tariffs.

Labour backbenchers warned that the tariff row would fuel the rebellion over strikes against Iraq. Fifty-one Labour MPs have signed a Commons motion expressing "deep unease" at Mr Blair's support for the US on the issue.

The Prime Minister also faced anger from the Conservatives, who used the issue to reopen the row over Mr Blair's support for Lakshmi Mittal, the billionaire Labour donor and steel magnate.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory leader, told Mr Blair: "It took you 30 seconds to write a letter supporting a non-British company producing anti-British policies, yet it takes you months and months to write a letter to the US President standing up for British interests.

"Will you now apologise to British steel workers who may lose their jobs?"

But Mr Blair replied: "This was raised first by the Trade and Industry Secretary in July last year. It has been raised at every single level of this Government with the American administration.

"It is important now that together with other European countries we pursue the right remedies through the World Trade Organisation."

Senior officials at the Department of Trade and Industry said that Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, had spoken to Mr Zoellick several times over the past eight months, while officials had been in close contact with Washington to press Britain's case.

The DTI said Britain and the European Union would press for compensation, potentially running into millions of pounds, for firms that lost business because of the American tariffs, while Ms Hewitt told MPs the tariffs could prove "devastating" for British steel interests.