Recalling 10 years of Blair interviews

TONY Blair was not the easiest man to interview. More at home with the national media and television reporters whom he saw on a weekly or even daily basis and whom he had cultivated during his path to power, Mr Blair didn't seem to recognise the vital role the regional press played in communicating the Government's strategy and message.

By Graham Dines

TONY Blair was not the easiest man to interview. More at home with the national media and television reporters whom he saw on a weekly or even daily basis and whom he had cultivated during his path to power, Mr Blair didn't seem to recognise the vital role the regional press played in communicating the Government's strategy and message.

He never relaxed and there was always a hard, challenging edge to his replies. John Major, Paddy Ashdown, and Charles Kennedy always showed a warmth - genuine or not, it's hard to tell with politicians - towards journalists, especially if they recalled meeting before.

Blair had been Labour leader for two years before he agreed to talk to the East Anglian Daily Times. Perhaps his advisers regarded Suffolk and north Essex as a lost cause - if they did, they would have been agreeably surprised by the election results 12 months later.


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The interview was organised in the worst surroundings - a swaying first class carriage on Anglia Railway's 5pm service from Liverpool Street to Ipswich as he prepared to visit Great Yarmouth and BT's laboratories at Martlesham.

At the end of out talk, when the emphasis was clearly on the New of New Labour and the rubbishing of the party's rich heritage of radical socialism, the then Leader of the Opposition insulted me by saying: “I suppose you're a Norwich City supporter.”

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I can accept he that we wouldn't know that I'm a Manchester Utd season ticket holder, but to think that the people of Ipswich and Suffolk would be Norwich supporters clearly showed that he knew nothing about provincial England, soccer, and its tribalism.

His first four years in power nearly passed without any formal recognition that East Anglia existed. It was only the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease which brought him here, and that was in the run-up to the postponed 2001 General Election when he met army chiefs at the Colchester garrison to learn about the control measures which had been put in place to try to stem the spread of the deadly virus.

His news conference was overshadowed with problems of hearing journalists - he had a microphone, we did not - and I ended up shouting questions at him across half a parade ground.

In 2002, Mr Blair came to the greater Ipswich area and popped into Shotley primary school to meet pupils and staff and to see at first hand his Government's education reforms and the pressure on small rural schools. Interviews with journalists were arranged in a classroom but little or no attempt had been made to brief him on local issues and we ended talking in generalities.

He was, however, the perfect host. My wife and I attended an early evening reception in the winter of 2004 given by him and Cherie at 10 Downing Street and graced by most of the Cabinet - but not Gordon Brown - and the couple were charm themselves, taking an interest in the region and chatting animatedly about their young Leo.

Shortly before the 2005 election, he gave a lunch for regional Lobby journalists and this time did seem to know local facts and figures as he answered questions. He made a big issue of walking into the room with a carrot and an apple, saying he wanted to eat healthily and didn't know if the official catering would allow him to. He need have had no worries - there were plenty of crudities and dips, non meat sandwiches and lashings of fruit for all the hacks to scoff.

The General Election campaign of 2005 saw Labour desperate to hold on to Harwich, a marginal seat eyed by the Conservatives.

Virtually every Cabinet minister paid homage to Labour achievements in the towns of the constituency - Clacton, Jaywick, Dovercourt and Harwich itself - while Tony Blair opened a new high school, Bishop's Park College in Clacton, flying in by helicopter accompanied by the world's media.

Again interviews were conducted in a classroom. And he didn't seem to be aware of the clamour over the iniquities over rising levels of poll tax, and seemed genuinely surprised when I pointed out that the overall council tax in Westminster - one of Britain's wealthiest areas - was half the amount those on fixed incomes and pensions were expected to cough up in the district of Tendring.

His visit to Bishop's Park to reiterate “education, education, education” was all to no avail - the Conservatives won Harwich by 920 votes.

The last time we spoke was at a seminar on deficits in NHS trusts, in which he and his Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt listened to chief executives telling them what they wanted to hear - that ward closures and staff cuts were painful, but the only remedy if the health service was to be modernised and brought into balance.

It was a surreal occasion, and the tragedy was that Mr Blair and Ms Hewitt actually believed what they were being told after billions of pounds had been invested in the NHS since 1997. The simple question: where has the money gone? was not asked by them and brushed aside with platitudes when journalists sought an answer.

Tony Blair was a Prime Minister who didn't seem to appreciate the traditions of the House of Commons. Compared with his predecessors, he spent little time there, but when I did come across him walking in the corridor behind the Speaker's chair or on the stairs leading from the inner car park accompanied by his minders, he'd at least acknowledge me.

Perhaps that's all one can ask of a Prime Minister who thinks Ipswich supports Norwich City.

THE SAYINGS OF TONY BLAIR

“We will negotiate a withdrawal from the EEC which has drained our natural resources and destroyed jobs” - Election address in Sedgefield in 1983.

“Labour is the party of law and order in Britain today. Tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime” - 1993 as shadow home secretary.

“It has sure come to something when a government can only secure the passage of its own legislative programme by threatening its own demise” - To Prime Minister John Major in 1994, after Major turned a key Euro vote into a vote of confidence.

“The reason we have been out of power for 15 years is simple - that society changed and we refused to change with it” - article in The New Statesman, July 1994.

“Those who seriously believe we cannot improve on words written for the world of 1918 when we are now in 1995 are not learning from our history but living it” - 1995, on the proposed abolition of the nationalisation Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution.

“Britain needs successful people in business who can become rich by their success, through the money they earn” - Speech to the CBI, 1995.

“Penal rates of taxation do not make economic or political sense. They are gone for good - Speech to CIB conference, November 1995.

“There is no going back on the Thatcherite trade union reforms” - interview in The Daily Telegraph, January 1996.

“Ask me my main three priorities for government and I will tell you: education, education and education” - Labour Party conference, October 1996.

“People everywhere, not just here in Britain, kept faith with Princess Diana. They liked her, they loved her, they regarded her as one of the people. She was the People's Princess and that is how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and our memories for ever” - August 31, 1997, on the death of the Princess of Wales.

“This isn't time for soundbites. But I feel that the hand of history is on our shoulder, I really do” - On negotiating the Good Friday Agreement for Northern Ireland, April 1998.

“Disloyal, discourteous and wrong” - Mr Blair's response to junior minister Tom Watson and rebel MPs, including Ipswich's Chris Mole , who resigned over Labour's leadership crisis, September 2006.

“Within the next few weeks I won't be Prime Minister of this country. In all probability a Scot will become Prime Minister of the UK” - May 1, 2007.

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