The Prime Minister yesterday denied taking a leading role in the MG Rover crisis because he feared an electoral backlash in a string of marginal seats in the Midlands.

Tony Blair insisted the Government could not have intervened directly to save MG Rover but had done its "level best" to persuade the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation to tie up a deal with the Longbridge carmaker.

And he told The Birmingham Post he would have pursued the same course even if the Government had not been seeking re-election for a third term.

Rejecting criticism that he "hyped" interest from the Chinese stated-owned company for electoral gain, Mr Blair highlighted his support for MG Rover in 2000 when it was bought by Phoenix Venture Holdings after BMW had threatened to close it down.

"We supported Rover five years ago and we would have supported them again irrespective of whether there was an election on," he said yesterday during a visit to the Alexandra Hospital in Redditch, Worcestershire.

"We do not try to save jobs that cannot be saved. We did out level best to make the Chinese deal stand up and we have put a big package in place to help workers.

"It gave us five years, five years in which we diversified the supply businesses.

"As Sue Battle from the West Midlands Chamber of Commerce told me last Friday when I was in Birmingham, if mechanisms were not set up in the wake of that crisis there would be plenty more job losses now." Last Friday, Mr Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown broke off their campaigning to visit Birmingham after SAIC announced it was not interested in a deal. That was followed by MG Rover's administrators announcing the closure of Longbridge with the loss of more than 5,000 jobs.

The Government instigated a £150 million aid package for the West Midlands and yesterday Mr Blair promised he would meet Rover workers after the election to ensure the package of support was effective.

Last Friday, the Prime Minister spoke to the husbands of Gemma Cartwright and Liz Hanks, who had worked at Longbridge for a number of years.

The wives had visited Downing Street two days earlier to hand in a letter urging Mr Blair to encourage the Chinese to come to an agreement with MG Rover.

Mr Blair spoke to the car workers moments after learning that SAIC had pulled out of the deal, as he felt "very sorry for the people at Rover".

He added: "I said to them (the workers) when I spoke to them last Friday that we will meet after the election and make sure that the measures that have been put in place have worked.

Mr Blair also reassured workers that the Government was in talks with banks which provided preferential loans for Longbridge employees to buy Rover cars. There are now fears the banks could call in these loans. "We are concerned about this" he said.

Mr Blair, who addressed a Labour rally in Birmingham city centre last night, agreed that communities in the south of the city feared for their future and said local neighbourhoods would receive " extra attention".

He pointed to the £40 million technology park on the Longbridge site and the extra "investment going into the area".

The Prime Minister also spoke about the closure of the Fujitsu factory in his Sedgefield constituency in 1998 and said much of that manufacturing workforce re-trained and found jobs elsewhere, as they would do in Birmingham.

"If the economy is strong then it is obviously easier," he said.

Describing the manufacturing sector as a "vital part of our economy", he added: "I am going around the country and seeing strong economic investment."

Enthusiasts pick over the bones

They've hardly had time to decently mourn the passing of one of Britain's greatest automotive names, but MG Rover enthusiasts are already clamouring to offload memorabilia from Longbridge.

Almost 250 items, ranging from the ridiculous to the rare, have been posted for sale on the internet auction site ebay since the demise of the company was announced last Friday.

Clutches for Rovers past and present are available at £25 while a set of brake disc pads has an asking price of £8.50.

A spark plug cover for the K series engine, which may or may not now be manufactured, is up for sale at £14.99.

A set of MG Rover cups and saucers in Wedgwood china has an asking price of £24.99.

Babies bibs embroidered with the MG emblem are selling for £4.99 each.

Memories of previous campaigns to save Rover are captured by the book Longbridge - the battle for MG Rover, which has an asking price of £7.50.

Neon windscreen washer sets are available at £4.99 while an oil pressure switch will cost just 99p, an MG Midget chrome exhaust pipe is selling for £4 and a Rover 75 satellite navigation system for £10.

Among the more unlikely items are a trade parts catalogue for £1, an official Longbridge tie pin for £3.50. American enthusiasts are also cashing in, with a "very rare" MG Rover car emblem for sale at $6.

But perhaps the most optimistic seller is attempting to offload an MG Rover press pack for the 2004 Birmingham Motor show at 99p. As of last night, there were no takers.