Did he say it or didn't he? After terrine, soup and truffles, union leaders were still not quite sure

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On leaving the dinner full of bonhomie and cabernet sauvignon, the leaders of Britain's trade union movement could not believe their ears.

Reporters waiting in the foyer of the Grand Hotel in Brighton on Tuesday were keen to hear their reaction to the Prime Minister's dressing down. Labour party officials had issued extracts of Tony Blair's speech to newspapers at 7.15pm. The comments were stark. After Gordon Brown's uncompromising speech hours earlier - which had been given a lukewarm reception - Mr Blair seemed to be issuing a severe warning to the "awkward squad" that is dominating this week's conference headlines.

Yet many of the union leaders could not recognise the transcript shown to journalists, which was being printed in the early editions of the newspapers. They started angrily complaining that they had been given one speech, while the press had been handed another. Left wingers said that was typical of the New Labour spin machine: give a hardline message to the media and then schmooze in private with the leaders of organisations that fund the party.

This was a disastrous first outing for David Hill. The new director of communications at No 10 had accompanied the Prime Minister on the short trip to Brighton for his annual speech to the TUC general council.

Before the meal, Matthew Doyle, a Labour Party press officer, had handed out the extracts to waiting reporters. One passage warned: "The idea of a left-wing Labour government as the alternative to a moderate and progressive one is the abiding delusion of 100 years of our party. We aren't going to fall for it again."

In the text Mr Blair warned that the alternative to his policies of invest and reform "is not the one offered on the far left of the party" and said that if Labour rejected diversity of supply, choice and flexible working it would be a mistake akin to the rejection of council house sales in the 1970s.

Derek Simpson, leader of the giant Amicus trade union, left the dinner for a pre-arranged interview, only to read with horror a copy of Mr Blair's prepared text. "It was slightly bizarre," he said.

The evening had begun routinely enough, with about 360 union leaders and their partners seated at 30 round tables. Mr Blair sat opposite John Prescott at a rectangular top table, Brendan Barber, John Monks and Nigel de Gruchy beside them.

After the second course, Mr Blair stood to give his speech, introduced by Mr de Gruchy, former leader of the NASUWT teachers' union and this year's president of the TUC.

The Prime Minister was told that among the guests was Jack Jones, the veteran former leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union and a left-wing hero of the labour movement. Mr Blair was reminded that Mr Jones had seen more Labour governments than he had. To laughter, the Prime Minister replied that he had also "seen most of them off."

In convivial tones, he joked about the militant RMT leader, Bob Crow. He told how he had been watching a Crow speech to the TUC on the television in Downing Street. He had left the sound off because he knew what the hard-left Mr Crow would be saying.

More seriously, he repeated his regular warnings that moderate Labour governments are not overthrown by the left, but by the Conservatives. He appealed for partnership but made clear he was not going to retreat on public-service reform. But the tone seemed to be far softer than the harsh words in the press release. Trade unionists were struck by the "evangelical" tenor of the Prime Minister, and were lulled by his jokes to give him what one general secretary called an "enthusiastically warm reception".

Some denied that the words "delusion" and "far left" had been uttered. Others agreed that they had, but believed the speech was markedly more conciliatory than the version given to the press.

Meanwhile, reporters hurriedly refiled. This time the headlines were of a Labour spin shambles. No 10 knew a carefully planned message to union leaders had gone awry.

Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, backed Downing Street yesterday, insisting Mr Blair had not toned down his message. He told Today on BBC Radio 4: "I think his messages were strongly put across and were actually rather well received by everybody who was at the dinner."

Yet when journalists waiting for union leaders to emerge from the banquet had asked Mr Barber if the Prime Minister's comments were as hard-line as the press release, he went off to consult his "spin doctor"'. He later came back and said that they were.

But some union leaders, the dinner had left a bitter aftertaste. Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the Nation Union of Journalists, said: "He certainly made a speech in public and another one in private.

"He was either not prepared to say it or was frightened to say it. The blame for this clearly lies with those who spun the speech in the first place."

Bob Crow of the RMT said: "I thought spin was supposed to have stopped with this new bloke."

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