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Friday, January 15, 1999 Published at 15:52 GMT

UK Politics

Blair defends support for Michael

Tony Blair has attempted to undermine the suggestion that his visit to Wales was a desperate attempt to bolster support for Alun Michael in the leadership contest.

The BBC's Jon Sopel: "It was patently obvious who he thought was the best candidate"
The Welsh secretary is widely perceived as New Labour's choice in the two-man race with maverick backbencher Rhodri Morgan to lead the party in the Welsh Assembly and probably become its first secretary.

Some critics had suggested the prime minister had only made his visit to north Wales because his preferred candidate is trailing badly in the polls.

[ image: Tony Blair:
Tony Blair: "Choose the best person for the job"
Mr Blair told Labour supporters in the Theatre Clwyd: "I personally don't think I should have to apologise as leader of the Labour Party for coming here to Wales.

"This is a decision that is an important decision. I can't duck the fact that I chose Alun Michael as Secretary of State for Wales. The person who becomes leader of the Welsh Assembly will do much the same job as he is doing now."

Part of the scepticism surrounding Mr Michael's candidacy is that he did not stand as a Welsh Assembly candidate until after former Welsh Secretary Ron Davies' sudden resignation.

This led to accusations that he had not real interest in Welsh politics and was being parachuted in by the London Labour Party.

[ image: Alun Michael: Perceived as Downing Street's man]
Alun Michael: Perceived as Downing Street's man
Mr Blair said: "The reason why Alun wasn't put forward in the first contest is an obvious reason - Ron Davies was the candidate.

"We really don't need this run as a Downing Street person versus some other person.

"We're all one Labour Party. My advice to you is choose the best person for the job."

Answering questions in his shirt-sleeves with Mr Michael at his side, the prime minister received a round of applause from the party faithful.

Mr Blair also talked of his efforts to address the growing gap between the rich and poor in the United Kingdom.

He said he was happy for people to succeed and become wealthy, but that a Labour government would always help those who failed.

[ image: Ron Davies: Quit after a
Ron Davies: Quit after a "lapse of judgement" in a London park
"We didn't come into existence as a Labour Party to celebrate poverty.

"I don't want ever to have a situation as I remember in the 1980s when people would say well the party of compassion is Labour but if you want to get on in life vote Tory - rubbish.

"It was very convenient for them in the '80s. They would say if you want to vote for everyone else vote Labour, if you want to vote for yourself vote Tory. That's what kept them in power for ages."

The prime minister denied the rich-poor gap in Britain had continued to grow under his government and spelled out the measures he was taking to reduce it.

The minimum wage, working tax credit, the New Deal for the young unemployed and increases in child benefit would help society's poorest, he said.

[ image: The prime minister received a warm welcome from the party faithful]
The prime minister received a warm welcome from the party faithful
He went on to promise a forthcoming rise in benefits for pensioners.

"We'd like to do far more pensioners but we are actually doing things the Conservative government haven't done for years."

Spending on overseas aid through the newly-created Department for International Development had also gone up after years of decline.

"An extra 1bn is going to helping some of the poorest countries in the world," he said.

"Our responsibility as social democrats is not just to help the poorest in our own country it's to help the poorest around the world."

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