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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 November 2005, 13:30 GMT
Business cheers for Blair energy review
By Jorn Madslien
BBC News business reporter at the CBI conference in London

Greenpeace protester in gas mask outside CBI conference
Greenpeace staged a military-style protest outside the conference
It came as no surprise when CBI director general Sir Digby Jones took a tough stance against the Greenpeace protesters who had disrupted Prime Minster Tony Blair's speech on energy policy and other issues.

"I don't give in to ultimatums," Sir Digby declared. "I'm not gonna have this."

But his next manoeuvre proved wily.

By shifting the entire convention away from the main hall, where two Greenpeace climbers were refusing to come down from the ceiling, he achieved two things.

One, he shifted everyone's attention away from the Greenpeace protest.

Two, he provided Mr Blair with a perfect opportunity to charm some of the nation's foremost business leaders.

Charm offensive

Addressing the scrum of besuited executives in a large, narrow hall adjacent to the main conference area, Mr Blair took full advantage of the very British sense of camaraderie, similar to that experienced by commuters stranded in a train trapped by a blizzard.

CBI director general Sir Digby Jones
Sir Digby Jones moved swiftly to reschedule proceedings

"That's one way to get his ratings up," said one businessman. "It is testimony to the prime minister's flexibility, his ability to just rejig like that," added a businesswoman.

Mr Blair was positively beaming as Sir Digby led him onto a makeshift podium, before a hastily-organised broadcast camera.

"This is going to be a surreal occasion, but I'm going to give this speech if it's the last thing I do," he quipped into the crackling microphones, before turning to his fellow CBI guests, Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip and Czech Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek.

"I just wanted to tell you, it's not always like this."

New energy sources

Mr Blair talked on a range of issues, ranging from globalisation and free trade issues ahead of next month's World Trade Organization meeting in Hong Kong to the performance of the UK economy, the Turner report on pension policy and transport.

Tony Blair at the CBI conference
Tony Blair gave a wide-ranging speech

And last, but not least, the prime minister turned to the contentious issue of energy policy that had sparked the Greenpeace protest in the first place.

"I have no doubt where policy is heading, here, in the US, across the emerging economies of the world," Mr Blair declared. "The future is clean energy."

In the next 15 years, coal and nuclear plants that generate nearly a third of Britain's electricity supply will be decommissioned, so new energy sources must be found, Mr Blair explained.

"Some of this will be replaced by renewables, but not all of it can," he said, before announcing the terms of a review of the UK's progress against previously set goals.

"It will include specifically the issue of whether we facilitate the development of a new generation of nuclear power stations," Mr Blair said.

Energy shortage

Greenpeace and other sceptics, including several members of parliament, believe Mr Blair has already decided to go for the nuclear option to replace the 14 power stations that are due to be shut down by 2020.

"You cannot do that without expecting a fight," observed Greenpeace's Jim Footner speaking outside the conference hall in Islington, North London, where protesters dressed in military-style combat boots and gas masks continued a quiet demonstration.

Greenpeace also accused the CBI of exaggerating this winter's anticipated energy shortage in order to build support for the nuclear option.

Greenpeace protester at the CBI conference
Greenpeace protesters took to the rafters in the main hall

"The CBI... has been exploiting the gas shortage issue to get nuclear power," Mr Footner insisted, an accusation fervently denied by Sir Digby.

"I am very pleased [Mr Blair] has started a debate on nuclear energy. That's all he's done," Sir Digby said.

But he also acknowledged that "business is worried" about a future energy shortage, and it is no secret that many executives would welcome the certainty of supplies offered by 24/7 nuclear power stations.

Others appeared to be dismayed at the way the government is prepared to consider further investment into the nuclear industry, where almost certainly a massive subsidy commitment would be required.

Following Mr Blair's speech, one businessman asked whether he would consider helping UK oil companies extract more of the nation's own reserves from the North Sea.

"It is difficult for us to create artificial support for our own oil industry if we are importing cheaper [oil and gas] from elsewhere," Mr Blair said.

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