11 February 2000

Canny Blair in West Country

PRIME Minister Tony Blair showed remarkable stamina as well as political skill during his two-day visit to Devon and Cornwall last week, when he also had to deal with the crisis over the Irish peace initiative.

His speech to the NFUs AGM (News, Feb 4) and a report that claimed the crisis in the countryside was less severe than farmers claimed left many in the region seething with anger and resentment. But as the visit progressed Mr Blair appeared to tone down those aspects and he adopted a "keen to listen" mode, breaking from schedule to invite small groups of bystander farmers in to have private talks with him.

Farming-related parts of his schedule included stops at a farm-based restaurant run by sheep farmer Roger Dunn and his family. There he met local farmers, who had diversified, and their suppliers. And he cancelled a planned photo-call to spend more time talking to a group of farmers making a gentle protest to go indoors and explain their concerns to him.

Earlier at Exeter, Devon, where he faced a group of mainly pig farmers as he left a meeting with local businessmen, he asked to meet two of them inside.

In a later speech at St Blazey in Cornwall, Mr Blair emphasised his understanding that there were major difficulties in farming and that farmers needed more than sympathy.

He was not there to lecture but to listen and learn, he said.

NFU south-west regional director Anthony Gibson, who the day before had challenged Mr Blair on the need for short-term help, said he was convinced that Mr Blair was genuinely listening and appeared to have softened his views during the visit.