Whirlwind Blair charms Jaywick

EADT Political Editor Graham Dines watches Tony Blair in action in Clacton and then talks to the Prime Minister on investment in public services, the MRSA superbug and council tax.

EADT Political Editor Graham Dines watches Tony Blair in action in Clacton and then talks to the Prime Minister on investment in public services, the MRSA superbug and council tax.

FLYING over Jaywick, euphemistically described in Labour's literature as West Clacton, Tony Blair saw from the air what £25million of private finance initiative had provided for this part of the Labour marginal seat of Harwich.

His helicopter, and the second machine ferrying the London-based broadcasters and media who accompany the Prime Minister everywhere, appeared out of leaden skies shortly after 1pm yesterday.

As usual, Mr Blair was late on the latest leg of his whistle-stop tour designed to showcase to the voters at large Labour's investment in the public services over the past eight years.

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On the ground, the Prime Minister's motorcade travelled the short distance from Clacton's seafront airstrip to the town's Bishops Park College, the new community college for 11 to 16-year-olds that opened its doors just the day before.

Labour Party officials had done their best to gather enough balloon-waving activists to shout warm words of greeting for their hero – but their efforts were drowned out by supporters of Respect, the anti-war party that is standing in Harwich, and mums whose children with learning difficulties are about to be absorbed into mainstream education when their special school closes.

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"Money spent on warfare which should be spent on welfare," said Respect's candidate John Tipple. It was a message that Mr Blair has heard time and again in the past three years and, as usual, chose to ignore.

But the parents were enough to worry David Hill, Labour's communications director, who bemoaned Essex County Council's special schools closure policy and denied it was anything to do with Government policy. He promised to have a word with the Prime Minister.

Accompanied by a beaming Ivan Henderson – who has been MP for Harwich since 1997, is defending a majority of 2,503 and is vulnerable to a swing of just 2.71% – Mr Blair and his wife Cherie, decked out in a dazzling plum-coloured outfit, were met by proud headteacher Mike Davies.

The school has just 370 pupils, but this number will rise over the years to about 900. It was probably just as well that the building was a little over a third full.

The media scrum that always follows the Prime Minister was in full cry, getting in everyone's way with television cameramen trailing wires all over the place and conspiring to trip everyone up.

ITN's Sir Trevor McDonald adopted the best policy, languidly lounging on one of the school's legion of sofas and keeping well out of the way.

A tour of the school, including a quick French lesson under the tutelage of Francis Holloway, was followed by a meet and greet of the pupils, and then it was interviews with the region media and broadcasters.

And so back to London. It is doubtful if Mr Blair's flying visit will have been much of a boost for Mr Henderson's chances of survival – but a £25m piece of kit in one of the East Anglia's less well off-areas and opened just 10 days before polling day could make all the difference.

n Candidates standing in Harwich are: Douglas Carswell (Conservative), Ivan Henderson (Labour), Christopher Humphrey (Independent), Keith Tully (Liberal Democrat), Jeffrey Titford (We Want Our Country Back) and John Tipple (Respect).

GRAHAM DINES: Is Bishops Park School a prime example of your much-hyped investment in public services?

TONY BLAIR: This is a tremendous tribute to all those who have worked hard towards its opening. It is a fabulous school – obviously it is new build, but there are lots of primary and secondary schools which are getting the facilities they need thanks to the investment which we putting in place.

GRAHAM DINES: You are proud of the investment, but there are still problems in East Anglia. NHS Trusts in Suffolk are £50million in the red and people are finding it difficult to find an NHS dentist in the county. Can you reassure people that your Government is committed to East Anglia?

TONY BLAIR: Most people say there have been real improvements in health and schools, but there are still problems and I think that's fair. My point is that we are carrying on making these services better. The NHS deficits will be managed and are a small part of the overall budget. Dentistry has seen problems, but we are recruiting more dentists. In any health care system in the world, there have always been problems. Is the health service getting better – I think it is.

GRAHAM DINES: You will be aware of the tragic case of Luke Day, who died in Ipswich Hospital's maternity unit from MRSA when he was just 36 hours old. What are you going to do to combat the MRSA superbug?

TONY BLAIR: The first thing we have to try to understand is how it got into system. In 1990, 4% of hospital-acquired infection was resistant to antibiotics. In 1997, it was over 30% – we have to bring it way back down. The way of doing that is putting matrons in wards, which we are, and making sure that we have the right cleaning arrangements in hospitals. We are putting resources and efforts behind that and the Chief Nursing Officer is taking charge of it,

but like other countries that have the same problem, we have to knock it out of the system and this will take some time to do.

GRAHAM DINES: Tory leader Michael Howard has unveiled a £10m plan to fight MRSA, enabling all NHS hospital trusts to implement state-of-the-art technology to identify the bug by nasal swabs in a matter of hours as opposed to days. What's wrong with that idea?

TONY BLAIR: We are doing everything we have been advised to do. The truth about the Conservatives is that they are using the issue of MRSA to run down the whole health service care system. The NHS provides fantastic service for people – MRSA, when it happens, is absolutely tragic.

The case of Luke Day was particularly so, but I have to point out that there is just one case a year of a child dying from MRSA. That's not to minimise what has happened to Luke and his family. His case is one too many – but when you consider there are hundreds of thousands of kids born in our hospitals every year, it is important we get it into perspective.

GRAHAM DINES: In 1997 and 2001, there were a record number of Labour MPs elected in East Anglia – are you going to keep them after May 5?

TONY BLAIR: We're fighting hard all the way. The Conservative have not got a strategy for Government, they're not running to be the Government. What they're saying to voters is 'Send a message to Tony Blair'. Our danger is not that the Tory vote goes up, but that people stay at home or opt out by voting Liberal Democrat and thus let the Conservatives in by the back door.

GRAHAM DINES: Perhaps there is a positive reason for voting Liberal Democrat. One problem in the shires of England, which comes across more than it does in London, is council tax. In April 1997, the last time council tax was set under a Tory government, the figure band D tax in Harwich was just over £600. Today it is £1,227.76 – a 100% increase and twice the level of the London borough of the City of Westminster, where it is £618. A lot of people are attracted to the Liberal Democrat policy of a local income tax – pensioners and those on fixed incomes like the idea of being taken out of council tax by the Lib Dem plans, whereas Labour has only offered a one-off £200 reduction for the over-65s and Tories have pledged £500 cut every year.

TONY BLAIR: The difference is that we are offering some at this election that we can actually deliver. The Conservatives cannot say how they are going to get this money to cut council tax – another part of their plan is to cut £2.5billion out of councils budgets, which will actually put the tax up. The problem with a local income tax is that if you end up with local authorities having the same powers as the Inland Revenue to tax your income, some people will gain, but others will lose out drastically. If you are a two-earner family, you are going to lose a lot. The Lib Dems want to make up the gap from a 50% top rate of tax, but there is no way they can fund all their pledges this way. I would like to offer people something for free, but the sums don't add up.

GRAHAM DINES: Will pensioners be seduced into voting for the Lib Dems because of their policy?

TONY BLAIR: I don't think so when they study it because what they'll see is that average families will be worse off.


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