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2000: Blair 'handbagged' by the WI

Prime Minister Tony Blair has been given a hostile reception by Women's Institute members, who heckled and slow hand-clapped a speech he gave to their conference.

After what Mr Blair had hoped would be an address to win back the political initiative from the Tories, he received poor applause and drew criticism from some of the 10,000 audience members.

Some women even walked out in protest, saying the speech was too long and too overtly political.

One was heard to say: "This is just not on. This is the WI. We are not here for this."

Mr Blair used his speech to the WI conference at Wembley, in London, to stress that traditional values lay at the heart of Labour's policies.

He said: "I try to distinguish between the genuine values which underpin the best of Britain and the attitudes we can safely, rightly leave behind.

"Old fashioned values are good values, but old fashioned attitudes and practices can sometimes hold those values back."

Returning from paternity leave, Mr Blair explained how the birth of his son Leo had given him a "renewed sense of purpose", and he called for a revival of respect and responsibility in British civic society.

But the hand-clap protest, which began mid-speech, threatened to gather pace, before WI chairman Helen Carey appealed for members to listen politely.

The prime minister appeared uneasy and dropped a section of the speech about the NHS.

Downing Street later said there was no significance in that and it had only been done to save time.

Conservative leader William Hague dismissed the speech as "just words".

He said: "People's disappointment in the government is that they are not actually delivering anything".

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy accused Labour of failing to develop a coherent philosophy.

In Context
Following the embarrassment of the speech itself, Downing Street became entangled in a row about whether Mr Blair had actually been invited to address the WI at all.

WI leaders said the prime minister had approached them about a speech, while Number 10 insisted the invitation had come from the organisation itself.

The WI began as an educational movement in the 1920s and now has more than 260,000 members in 8,000 local groups.

Although traditionally considered the reserve of blue-rinsed ladies who enjoy making jam, the WI has actively campaigned on issues such as the future of post offices, human rights and third world debt.


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