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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 November, 2003, 09:54 GMT
It's good to talk, Tony

By David Williams
BBC Wales' political editor

Tony Blair's visit to Wales attracted a huge amount of media attention, and David Williams was among those in the political press pack.

But, even though a seasoned hack with a knack of getting what he wants out of politicians, he found it surprisingly difficult to pin down the man at the centre of the media circus.

Strangely enough, on a day dedicated to talking, the most difficult thing of all was to get the Prime Minister to do just that.

It was billed as the launch of the "Big Conversation" initiative - Mr Blair's big idea to re-engage with the public and to give them a chance to have their say in formulating policy ahead of the next general election.

It just so happened that the big talk-in was kicking off in Newport. An ideal opportunity for the Welsh media, myself included, to talk to the Prime Minister - or so you'd think!

Organising "jaw-jaw" with Mr Blair, however, ain't that simple. He was talking to just about everyone except us. There was just one window of opportunity in a frenetic day and that was at Ringland Labour club in Newport.

We were ordered to set up our cameras and his chair in front of the those who had been assembled to talk to him and the Home Secretary about anti-social behaviour. There was not much room for negotiation, so we did what we were told.

Blair listens to Welsh views
Good listener - when you can get hold of him
The Prime Ministerial human caravan, trailed by London's finest snappers, swept in for the pre-arranged photo opportunity. It was late - so late, in fact, that we were told there was no time to talk to us after all.

We protested. We talked and we talked and we talked. Those accompanying the Prime Minister seemed to be listening, but were they hearing only what they wanted to hear? Could we engage with them in a way they were encouraging the public to engage with the party?

If the Prime Minister was in Wales to start a national conversation, wouldn't it appear rather odd not to converse with the local media, we asked.

Seasoned advisers recognise blackmail when they hear it, but they tolerated us and pointed us to another "window" later in the day.

Just when we'd settled on another interview area at another location everyone began talking to us at the same time. Was this what they meant by "The Big Conversation"?

No. This was to be a very limited conversation. We were told the Prime Minister refused to sit down. There was no time for that. He would stand, thank you very much!

Health assurances

You begin to wonder whether the Prime Minister ever sits down. He is perpetual motion. No wonder there is so much concern about his health which prompted my first question - whilst standing: "How are you Prime Minister?"

Difficult question that, but he brushed it aside with assurances that he was fit and well. Next question: "Given that you're in listening mode, are you listening to your doctor?" The reply was a fixed grin.

Time to move on and ask easier questions -about top-up fees and the Richard Commission on Welsh assembly powers. Was Mr Blair prepared to be flexible in his response if the messages he received were hostile?

On university tuition fees, Mr Blair said he was listening to those opposing his plans, but also to those who were saying the institutions needed more money, and that money could not just be found from general taxation.

On the Richard Commission, Mr Blair said he would wait and see whether it recommended more powers. Of course he would listen, but there were no guarantees what the response would be.

And that was it. Another interview - standing - and he was off at a pace which had those following him struggling to keep up.

This was a Prime Minister with no reverse gear, determined to advance in a fast-changing, dangerous world. Health scares had not diminished his resolve.

Mr Blair, though, knows that the trick is to take the people with him. That is what this consultation exercise is all about.

And it seems that, if you persevere, you do - eventually - get to talk to him.


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