TONY BLAIR returned to the domestic political stage and the North-East yesterday with an attack on ‘‘vacuous’’ Tory promises of change.

Entering the pre-election fray in his old Sedgefield constituency, the former prime minister hailed Gordon Brown’s “certain” leadership, contrasting it with the “confusion”

at the heart of Conservative policy-making.

The Tories hit back, calling for an investigation into the extensive business interests he has built up since leaving office in 2007.

From the stage of Trimdon Labour Club, where he announced his resignation as Prime Minister nearly three years ago, Mr Blair drew on his experience of three General Election victories to attack David Cameron.

In a well delivered speech, he said: ‘‘As I always used to say when some in our ranks urged a mantra of ‘time for a change’ in 1997, it is the most vacuous slogan in politics.”

He said people were now asking “if I get change, what change exactly am I getting?”, a question which the Conservatives could not “coherently answer”.

‘‘They seem like they haven’t made up their mind about where they stand; and so the British public finds it hard to make up its mind about where it stands. In uncertain times, there is a lot to be said for certain leadership.’’ He pointed to what he said is the confusion in the Tories’ economic position, first claiming that cutting the deficit was their ‘‘absolute priority’’, only to then offer a big tax cut as the centrepiece of their policy.

He found similar confusion in the Tories’ stance on Europe, on their opposition to the DNA database when it helped to detect crimes, and on whether Mr Cameron had truly changed his party.

This confusion, he concluded, was in fact a deliberate strategy of believing one thing, but saying something more vote-winning.

“The British people deserve to have that strategy exposed before polling day,” he said.

Mr Cameron brushed off Mr Blair’s attack, quipping: ‘‘It is nice to see him making a speech that no one is paying for.’’ Neil Mahapatra, the Conservative candidate in Mr Blair’s former constituency, said: “People in Sedgefield won’t be fooled by this. They tell me on the doorstep how taken for granted they feel by Labour, especially when Tony Blair was MP here.

“If Gordon Brown is going to have Tony Blair out campaigning for him and the Labour Party, he should be leading the calls in asking the former Prime Minister to be open and transparent about his business interests and what work they do.”

The Tories allege that Mr Blair, whom they estimate has earned £20m since standing down, has not registered one of his companies, Windrush Ventures, properly with Parliament, and has based another, Firerush Ventures, in the low-tax countries of Gibraltar, Lithuania and Romania.

Phil Wilson, who now holds the seat, said: “Mr Blair employs 130 people and he’s got three charities – the sports foundation, the interfaith foundation as well as his work in Africa. He has to earn to do the things he believes in, so this criticism looks churlish.

“It was a considered speech saying we had had to change the Labour Party to win, and the Tories have to change the Conservative Party to win, but they are all over the place because they haven’t defined what they believe in and what they have changed.”

AFTER his speech, Mr Blair visited the Pioneering Care Centre, in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, which brings the public and voluntary sectors together to improve people’s health and lifestyle.

Mr Blair, who laid the centre’s foundation stone in 1998, was given a tour of the therapy suites, computer training rooms, hydrotherapy pool and the new £1.2m extension by chief executive Jane Hartley. Chairwoman Carol Briggs told him: “I remember you asked me how many people we envisaged would be employed here and I said off the top of my head about 29, because at least we had to think big. Someone else said, ‘We’ll be lucky if there’s six of us’, but now we employ 45 and have 50 volunteers.”

Mr Blair said: “We were unsure whether the partnership concept would work, but coming here makes me really proud. It is now a fantastic community facility.

“When I go to other parts of the world, like Palestine, their political problems are obviously different, but they face the same issues about how you provide facilities and get community activity going. This pioneering approach is a model that applies anywhere and everywhere.”

‘I think he still comes across well’

Catherine Priestley asks voters in Bishop Auckland what they think about Tony Blair’s involvement in Labour’s election campaign

ELIZABETH GALLAGHER, 69, of Leeholme, said: “The Iraq war turned a lot of people against him, bringing him back makes Labour look a bit desperate.” Donald Gallagher, 73, of Leeholme said: “He still comes across well and I think Labour still has working class people at its core.”

John Handley, 63, of Evenwood, said: “I think the economy and Iraq war are so associated with Blair that it’s a bad move for Labour to be re-associating itself with him. But you cannot deny he’s a good speaker, I bet Gordon Brown wishes he could speak as well as Tony Blair.”

Sidney Whitfield, 77, of Spennymoor, said: “It is a bad idea. He wasn’t wanted by the time he went and still isn’t.”

Irene Hodgson, 50, of Crook, said: “I think he has lost Labour values, he has moved on, gone to lots of countries, made lots of friends and money and for Labour to bring him back shows they are desperate and have lost touch with the people.”

Josephine Dent, 50, of Frosterley, said: “I think it is a good idea, I think a lot of people like Gordon Brown, as I do, but don’t voice their opinions like they did with Tony Blair as he’s more of a personality.”

Doris Ewin, 66, of Ferryhill, said: “My first thought was ‘how dare he?’ He used this area for his own gains then took off and deserted us. I used to think he was great, but now I think this is him trying to save face and seek attention.”

Michelle Dent, 24, of Frosterley, said: “I don’t like him at all, I am not against Labour, but think Blair looked at things that were important to him and lost touch with rural life and ruined the countryside, so its a mistake to bring him back.”

John and Janis Ellis, from High Etherley. Mr Ellis said: “I think he believes in the Labour Party, but it isn’t the same one I believe in.

Bringing him back will still have some influence on those who liked him, especially in Sedgefield, where people would vote for a labrador wearing a red rosette.” Mrs Ellis said: “I question his motives and wonder how much he is being paid.”