JCB boss and men in suits join Blair fan club

On the stump: Labour targets West Midlands businesses and industry as the John and Norma show goes calling on Avon
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Leaving behind the back- stabbing rows at Blackpool's Trades Union Congress, Tony Blair yesterday flew to the West Midlands to win the high praise of one of Britain's leading private industrialists.

On a swift visit to industry and business in the region - taking in boardroom, shop floor, business park, and a behind-counter stint in a Coventry McDonald's - the Labour leader hit the ground running after the party's stumbling performance with the union barons.

As Mr Blair regurgitated the sound bite of the day for the umpteenth time - "Unions will make claims, employers will make claims; we govern for the whole country" - an aide commented: "We turn every crisis into an opportunity."

Having been presented by the Conservatives as a man at the mercy of the unions, Mr Blair used the day to display the fact that he was nobody's patsy.

The opportunity to deliver that message was offered by Sir Anthony Bamford, chairman and managing director of JCB. Founded by his father, JC Bamford, 50 years ago, the company now has sales of more than pounds 700m. Flying Mr Blair down from Blackpool in his company helicopter to his Staffordshire factory outside Uttoxeter, Sir Anthony endorsed the Labour leader: "He's a very refreshing politician."

But Sir Anthony, former president of the local Conservative Association in Burton, a Tory marginal seat, and a donor to the Conservative Party, went significantly further. Asked whether he might one day make a contribution to the Labour coffers, he told The Independent: "We'll wait and see how they go on in government." Later, realising his mistake, Sir Anthony added, "If they are elected. If."

Mr Blair was quick to exploit JCB as an example of the enterprise he wanted to encourage: high investment, strong on training and a shop floor partnership between the union and an enlightened management. "It's how most trade unions do work," he said.

On the shop floor, where workers get in excess of pounds 6 an hour, the men in blue overalls appeared enthusiastic. But some said they would wait and see.

Mr Blair found greater warmth among an audience of businessmen at the opening of a new private business park in Coventry, where a number of men in suits told him they would be voting for him.

"Relations with business have been completely transformed. We talk to more business people than the Conservatives these days," Mr Blair said.

The tour ended with the human touch. Having driven a JCB earth-shifter off the production line in Staffordshire, Mr Blair went to a McDonald's, where he served milkshakes - without charge - to a couple of mothers.

It might not win the votes of those he meets, but it certainly wins much media coverage to sell the message of the day. "We are going to get beyond the damaging battles of the past," he told local BBC radio, "and offer a better, more just, more prosperous future."