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Wednesday, 7 June, 2000, 15:30 GMT 16:30 UK
Was Blair invited or not?
Tony Blair at the WI
Mr Blair put on a brave face despite the heckling
It was probably the last thing Mr Blair expected to happen after giving a speech to the Women's Institute - a furious row over whether he was invited or whether he invited himself.

Angry members emerging from the meeting insisted the prime minister had invited himself to speak and no invitation had been issued.

We never ever issued an invitation

WI chaiman Helen Carey
But they were at odds with Downing Street's spokesman, who insisted that the first suggestion that Mr Blair should address the WI came from the organisation itself, last year.

As Mr Blair addressed the 10,000-strong audience, he received a frequently hostile response, with some delegates heckling and slow hand-clapping. At least 10 even walked out in protest.

They were angy that he spoke for longer than allotted and made party politcal points.

'Downing Street warned'

WI leaders said they had been approached about a speech by the prime minister. They had held a meeting at which they agreed he should speak for no more than 20 minutes.

They had suggested he address issues such as sustainable development and rural post offices, which were of interest to their members.

And Downing Street was warned that the WI was a non-political organisation, they said.

WI women
Many women gave Mr Blair a hostile reception
Helen Carey, the WI's national chairman, said that Downing Street had "expressed a wish" for Mr Blair to speak to the meeting.

"We said: 'please don't be political because it will backfire on you''," she said.

"I think he began a list of what the government was going to do and had done and I think that was it," she added, referring to the protest.

"In a way you think 'Oh dear, how embarrassing' but at the same time members are expressing their opinion," she added.

Miss Carey said preparations for Mr Blair to attend the event had been under way for almost two years, when Downing Street indicated that the prime minister would like to come.

"We never ever issued an invitation," she insisted.

Angry women

One delegate at the meeting, Elizabeth Fisher, 58, said: "I wish he hadn't been here. I think he was just trying to use our platform - that we've got a lot of women together and it was a good audience."

I think he was glad to crawl out at the end

WI member Kath Bartle
On the protest, she said: "I think they (the audience) were getting fed up when he started getting a bit political about teachers and the NHS."

Another delegate, who did not wish to be named, believed the speech was too long.

"He started off quite well and then he deteriorated into politics," she said.

Retired housewife Kath Bartle, 56, from Essex, said: "It was far too political. The WI are not political."

The protest happened because Mr Blair mentioned the NHS, she said, which was a "very sore point" with WI members.

"He said he was terrified. I think he was glad to crawl out at the end," she added.

The Downing Street spokesman dismissed the hecklers, saying within an audience of 10,000 there were bound to be one or two who did not think he was the greatest leader ever.

And he denied the speech was party political, saying it had set out the government's agenda.

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See also:

07 Jun 00 | UK Politics
Women give Blair hostile reception
07 Jun 00 | UK Politics
Blair speech backfires badly
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