Blair scrambles to head off political meltdown

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The government moved to head off political meltdown for Labour in the West Midlands yesterday in the wake of the Longbridge crisis. An announcement by Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, of an emergency taskforce for the area was seen as an attempt to placate the electorate in some of the country's most marginal constituencies.

Thousands of voters work at the Rover plant or depend on it for their livelihoods. Withinhours of BMW's announcement on Thursday that it was selling the company, Tony Blair summoned to Downing Street leaders of the plant's two biggest unions, which also happen to be among the Labour Party's largest affiliates.

Mr Blair's immediate involvement was contrasted by union sources with the more relaxed response to the crisis at Harland and Wolff in Belfast, which last week lost an order to build the new Queen Mary liner but where the Government has little to lose in electoral terms.

Yesterday, some employees' leaders - many of them Labour activists who will help to get the vote out - were highly critical of the Government's performance on Rover. They believe Mr Byers should have gone to BMW's Munich headquarters weeks ago to establish what was going on rather than rush to the West Midlands after the decision had been taken.

Bill Morris, leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union, was dissatisfied with the insistence of the Prime Minister and Mr Byers that they were unaware of BMW's plans. "The plain fact is that they should have known," he said.

Apart from the potentially crippling impact to the area of a partial closure of the works with the loss of up to 5,000 jobs, there could be a heavy political price to pay, he said.

Labour MPs in some constituencies are clinging on by their fingertips. Among the most vulnerable seats are Halesowen and Rowley Regis, Wyre Forest, Birmingham Edgbaston, Birmingham Yardley, Dudley North and Dudley South, where even a minor swing to the Conservative Party would oust Labour MPs. Not only could the precious vote of politically uncommitted skilled workers disappear - the Holy Grail for political activists - the Government could also lose the support of traditional Labour voters.

Sir Ken Jackson, general secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, said the Longbridge sale was one of the most important political issues the Government has had to face.

William Hague, leader of the Conservatives, was quick to draw attention to the fact that BMW management partly blamed the Government's prevarication over the euro and its policy of high interest rates, leading to a strong pound, for the decision to sell Rover. John Overend, of the University of Aston in Birmingham, pointed out that the German company had estimated it had lost £225m last year because of the rise in the value of the pound.

Voters will have the first opportunity to assess ministers' performance over Rover in May during elections for one-third of the 117 seats on Birmingham City Council. Chris Game, senior lecturer at Birmingham University's Institute of Local Government Studies, pointed out that the Conservatives did "extremely badly" in 1996 in the wards where elections will take place. The Tories were therefore expected to rebound from such a low point. However, if the Government takes a share of the blame for the Rover sale, they could do much better than they thought, Mr Game says.

Roger Lyons, leader of the Manufacturing Science Finance union, which represents Longbridge white-collar workers, believes voters in the area will want to blame someone for the débâcle. He said the performance of both Rover and BMW would be under scrutiny, but so would the Department of Trade and Industry. "There is lot of justifiable anger in the West Midlands," he said.

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