Blair shrugs off hecklers to make final bow with strong defence of his record

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Tony Blair's fractious relationship with Britain's union movement came to an end yesterday amid heckling and a walkout by delegates at the TUC's annual conference. Mr Blair and many in his audience breathed a sigh of relief as "the great showman" took his final bow to a mixture of polite applause and sullen silence.

During his speech, he faced catcalls and heckling as he made an uncompromising defence of the Government's reforms and foreign policy. He delivered his traditional warning to his union audience that the policies demanded by the TUC would lead to the return of a Conservative government.

Mr Blair faced down his critics at the Brighton Conference Centre, declaring: "However difficult it is, however fraught our relations from time to time, make no mistake: I want the TUC to carry on being addressed by a Labour prime minister, not to go back to being addressed by the Leader of the Opposition."

Mr Blair's likely successor, Gordon Brown, gave union leaders a clear indication that he would not bow to their demands for a radical shift in Labour policy. The Chancellor issued an immediate statement condemning the walkout by hard-left delegates and used his speech to the annual dinner of the TUC's ruling general council to insist that he would not move away from health reforms that have been bitterly attacked by trade unionists this week.

Mr Brown said: "I urge all to support Tony Blair in what he said about our reforms in health so we can show that a universal health service free to all at the point of need is renewed and reinvigorated through reform to serve the British people."

Earlier, Mr Blair faced cries of "shame" and "bring them home", as he began his address by paying tribute to servicemen who had died in Iraq and Afganistan. Delegates shouted "troops out" and "Blair out".

Mr Blair departed from his text to urge union leaders not to return to the divisions of the past, but his speech only came alive when he defended his record in Iraq from hecklers. He said he was "absolutely proud" of defending the fragile democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

He said: "For years and years we had our debates and passed our resolutions and it never made the blindest bit of difference because we could not do anything about it. I want to see the Labour Party continue in government. That will only happen if it focuses on policy and acknowledges that government is a hard, tough business, but it is a darn site better than wasting our time in opposition. That is the brutal truth."

Bob Crow, the leader of the RMT rail union, who led 30 delegates out of the hall in protest, said: "Why should we sit down with someone who threw us out of the Labour Party." He accused the TUC leadership of vetting the topics for a question-and-answer session taken by the Prime Minister pointing out that delegates failed to ask Mr Blair about his foreign policies.

Union leaders said Mr Blair had given a disappointing last performance. Tony Woodley, general secretary of the TGWU, said: "It was sad to see such a consummate performer perform so poorly. There was no vision for the future. We need a new leader with a vision to carry us to a fourth-term Labour victory.

Derek Simpson, general secretary of Amicus, said: "It was like the third and fourth play-off in the World Cup. The result was completely irrelevant because we only want to know who is going to win the final."

Dave Prentis, head of Unison, pointed out that it was the end of an era. "Tony has never been that comfortable in front of a trade union audience and that came over today."

Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB general union, said the occasion was an anti-climax. "The Prime Minister is a great showman, but he left the TUC stage to polite applause, and no nomination for the Oscars."

Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, was one of the few to offer a degree of support. He said that while the union movement had differences with Mr Blair, he had made a "serious, thoughtful speech".

Mr Brown gave union leaders a clear indication that he would not bow to their demands for a radical shift in Labour policy. The Chancellor issued a statement condemning the walkout by hard-left delegates and used his speech to insist he would not move away from health reforms that have been bitterly attacked by trade unionists this week.

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