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Wednesday, 7 June, 2000, 11:58 GMT 12:58 UK
Blair speech 'backfires'
Tony and Cherie Blair with baby Leo
Tony Blair made much of the family in his WI speech
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder.

Tony Blair must have known he was walking into the lions' den when he attended the conference of the Women's Institute.

He even joked at the start of his speech: "This is the most terrifying audience I have ever seen in my life."

But he was still clearly taken aback by the hostility he received from a significant section of his 10,000-strong audience.

As he attempted a virtual political relaunch and moved to calm the so-called class war row that has been whipped up by his ministers, he was greeted with jeers, slow handclaps and a walkout.

At one point the chairwoman had to interrupt his speech to ask for him to be given a hearing.

And he was forced to declare: "I am glad we are having a good debate anyway."

He didn't look very glad, and he must have been wondering why on earth he had ever thought of addressing the meeting.

Being used

And it emerged that much of the anger directed at him was from members who believed they were being used by the prime minister as a party political platform and deeply resented the fact.

Tory leader William Hague
William Hague has been scoring hits on the government
Some claimed he had invited himself to the meeting - although this was later denied by Downing Street - and his speech had been heavily flagged up by aides as an important restating of the government's and, in particular, the prime minister's vision.

The institute is fiercely independent and a number of the members felt they were being manipulated by the prime minister in an attempt to make political capital.

His speech came after Tory leader William Hague scored a series of major hits on the government over law and order, asylum seekers and pensions.

And it followed the escalating row over elitism which has seen Mr Hague turning the tables on the government and its "liberal elite".

The prime minister has obviously been rattled by the Tories' recent advances and was eager to seize back the political initiative.

He needed to get back on track and clearly saw the WI as representatives of exactly the kind of middle England voters he relied on in the 1997 election and still desperately needs to keep on board.

And, in a calculated attempt to reassure those voters, he used his speech to dismiss as "rubbish" the talk of ministers engaging in class warfare.

Instead, he said, the government would have no truck with the old egalitarianism but would work for a true meritocracy.

Start listening

Much of his rhetoric about the family, traditional values, opportunity for all and community was clearly designed to appeal to the middle classes.

He also tried to keep traditional Labour supporters on board with talk of listening to people more and of core values.

He even returned to his controversial attack on the forces of conservatism which he first delivered at last autumn's Labour party conference.

But there was little new in the speech and no policy initiatives. And some backbenchers were left fearing that his attempt to define precisely what he believed in and dispel the notion that he is not driven by any political ideology had failed.

Mr Blair will also be hugely dismayed that, inevitably, much of his message will be overshadowed by the reception he received.

Downing Street later attempted to play the affair down insisting it would have been a huge surprise if, at a meeting of 10,000, there were not "one or two" who did not like the prime minister.

It was denied that Mr Blair had invited himself or that he had used the meeting as a party political platform and the hecklers were dismissed as unimportant.

But there is no doubt that, while the prime minister was desperately trying to get back on track, his appearance had badly backfired.

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See also:

07 Jun 00 | UK Politics
Women give Blair hostile reception
07 Jun 00 | UK Politics
Was Blair invited or not?
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