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Wednesday, July 7, 1999 Published at 17:47 GMT 18:47 UK

UK Politics

Blair risks row over public sector

The different comments suggest a split between the pair

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Tony Blair is fighting a rearguard action to stop his scathing attack on the public sector escalating into a full-scale row.

The BBC's John Sergeant: "Labour's publicity machine was in overdrive"
The prime minister attempted to cool the issue during question time exchanges in which he insisted he was not attacking doctors, teachers, or other public service workers.

But the first signs of a serious revolt emerged when his deputy, John Prescott, delivered a ringing endorsement of the sector and even appeared to suggest the prime minister's controversial words had been "prattle".

Public sector unions also joined the attack, warning that the prime minister might be heading for a full-on clash with them.

Downing Street insisted that Mr Blair stood by his words. He was determined to push through reforms and modernise the public sector and, as a result, would meet opposition from some quarters, said a spokesman.

He also denied suggestions that the prime minister's attack, in an unscripted addition to a speech in London, had been brought on by stress.

The row started when Mr Blair told the British Venture Capitalists Association of "the scars on my back" from two years trying to reform the public sector.

Angry sideswipe

"People in the public sector are more rooted in the concept that 'if it's always done this way, it must always be done this way' than any group of people I've come across," he said.

[ image: The prime minister accuses teachers and other public servants of resisting change]
The prime minister accuses teachers and other public servants of resisting change
The remarks were seen by some as an angry sideswipe aimed particularly at the British Medical Association who have accused the prime minister of bringing morale amongst doctors to an all-time low.

Just 24 hours later, Mr Prescott went out of his way to praise the public sector in a speech to the Local Government Association conference in Harrogate.

In a comment seen by some as a direct attack on Mr Blair, he said: "You may have seen quite a bit of press prattle this morning about the quality of public and private services.

"Since the 19th century it has been local councillors and the public sector who have helped forge a modern society.

BBC Political Editor Robin Oakley: "The public sector unions are stopping Blair from driving on as fast as he wants"
"When the private sector failed, the public sector stepped in locally and nationally. Indeed the contribution of the local authorities and the public sector did much to civilise this century in which we live and I believe will do so in the next century in which we are about to enter."

And he rounded off his remarks by declaring: "Now, I have got that off my chest."

The issue later erupted in question time when both William Hague and deputy Liberal Democrat leader Alan Beith challenged him over his comments.

Morale low

Mr Hague challenged the prime minister over waiting lists and declared: "The waiting list to get on the waiting list has been doubled. The junior doctors have been betrayed.

"The head of the BMA said in his speech on Monday: 'Congratulations, Mr Blair, morale has never been so low'."

Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader Alan Beith hammered home the attack asking if Mr Blair had been targeting doctors when he had spoken about the "obstructiveness" of some public sector workers.

Mr Blair hit back, claiming the government had a record to be proud of on the NHS and insisted: "No, I am not attacking the doctors or any other group of workers.

"But I am saying we need change in our public services and this government, which is putting more money into the public services than ever before, is entitled to demand in return, real change."

Later Downing Street sources also attempted to play down the issue, insisting Mr Blair stood by his remarks but was simply frustrated by the slow pace of change in the public sector.

But there was a widespread feeling that Mr Blair may have gone slightly over the top in his off-the-cuff remarks and had not foreseen the row which could ensue.

And, while Mr Blair clearly wants to "modernise" the sector, the last thing he wants is a full-scale clash with public sector workers.

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