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Tuesday, 14 May, 2002, 18:10 GMT 19:10 UK
Blair tries to shift focus
Prime Minister Tony Blair and BBC Newsnight's Jeremy Paxman
Blair has offered a three part interview to Paxman
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By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Probably the most interesting thing about Tony Blair's marathon interview with Jeremy Paxman is the fact he decided to do it at all.

 Click here to watch the interview in full

The prime minister has been under pressure for some time to make himself available for a "serious" grilling.

And he has clearly been stung by jibes that he is happier with fluffy "on the sofa" interviews.

But that does not explain why he and Alastair Campbell suddenly decided now was the time.

And round one of the event suggested Mr Blair had nothing particularly new to say to the country.

BBC Newsnight's Jeremy Paxman
Paxman more relaxed than Blair
His message was a mixture of a rather apologetic acceptance that things probably had not got as better as all the pre-election hype had pledged, combined with a reminder of just how much progress had been made over the past five years.

Tough on crime

He didn't look particularly comfortable and was clearly on the back foot on issues like transport and crime. But he managed to avoid obvious bear traps.

He admitted the transport system was in a poor state but he offered Stephen Byers his total confidence, without actually guaranteeing him future employment.

He insisted his decision to raise taxes to fund NHS improvements had not been made before the last election.

He signalled his determination to tackle drug-related crime, as part of his new "tough on crime agenda" but he offered no new initiatives.

And, finally, he again stressed that it would take time for real improvements to take effect.

So why now? Part of the answer is clearly found in the fact that the prime minister has been having a particularly bloody time of it lately.

Draw a line

There have been a series of sleaze allegations, the perpetual Stephen Byers affair and the continuing feeling that, despite all the promises, things really have not got better.

Prime Minister Tony Blair
Blair admitted long way to go
Meanwhile there have been signs that the Tories might finally be stirring from their pit.

And past history suggests that, whenever Tony Blair feels he is on the back foot, he attempts to draw a line under his troubles with some sort of personal plea.

He started it way back in the last parliament after the Bernie Ecclestone "cash for favours" row, with his famous "I'm a straight kind of guy" interview.

He did it again later with a TV interview in which he sprung his announcement on banning fox hunting.

And, as anger over his plans for the public sector gathered pace, he made at least one keynote speech attempting to close down those attacks.

His BBC interview may be seen as a similar attempt to shift the political focus, answer his critics and get back onto the offensive.

Lastly, there is also the carefully-planned campaign to answer those accusing him of ignoring parliament and acting in an unaccountable, presidential style.

The first move in that campaign has been the suggestion that he will make himself available, and answerable, to select committee chairmen.

Whether all this will add up to a more accessible, more accountable prime minister remains to be seen.

The second part of the interview will be shown on BBC 2's Newsnight at 2230 on Wednesday, with the third and final instalment on Thursday at 2230

The BBC's Nick Robinson
"He is trying to communicate what his government is all about"
See also:

24 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Interrogators get a grilling
14 May 02 | UK Politics
Blair backs Byers after Potters Bar
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