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Tuesday, 8 May, 2001, 20:46 GMT

Sunshine and schmaltz

Mark Mardell

The drive to the palace was managed with due propriety and constitutional solemnity, the BBC's helicopter hovering respectfully overhead, a golden spring day for an often lucky leader.

The constitutional niceties out of the way, Tony Blair broke with recent tradition.


" This was all about TV pictures that stamp, shout and scream 'we care about your children and their education' "
At the start of the campaign all parties have to overcome a perception that, while we may not know the final score, the result is not in doubt.

They will do all they can to inject a note of excitement and difference and the prime minister did his bit today.

Definitely no selection

He did not return to Downing Street and announce his decision to the waiting press.

He went instead to a South London Church of England school.

St Saviour's and St Olave's Grammar School, it says on the board outside, although the Labour party officials hovering tensely insisted that it is non-selective.

They wouldn't be drawn on whether it was a "bog-standard comprehensive."

Benefits clear

But the benefits of St Saviour's over the steps of Number 10 soon became clear.

As the prime minister entered, the girls clapped and cheered.

Whenever we hacks are assembled in the wind tunnel that is called Downing Street for a prime ministerial briefing we tend to shout rude questions instead.


" This was a gold-plated photo call with whistles, bells and schmaltz laid on with a trowel "
They cheered and even whistled when Mr Blair removed his jacket.

We certainly do not react like that.

When the choir sang "We are the children of the future" and the prime ministerial lower lip trembled the girls didn't nudge each other and sneer as some journalist might have done.

But they were a bit bewildered when he asked them for their vote because they are too young to have one.

For of course this was not about them but all about TV pictures that stamp, shout and scream "we care about your children and their education".

Indeed, not all the teachers were impressed either.

One of them, Chris Howell, said: "I don't like the situation where children are used as pawns in something like this."

'Real people'

I was told earlier that the prime minister wanted to get out and meet "real people" and not just do photo calls but this was a gold-plated photo call with whistles, bells and schmaltz laid on with a trowel.

As for the speech itself it contained most of the themes that we will hear again and again.

A touch of humility, an admission that there was much work to be done, a call for a new mandate so Labour can reform the public services.


" Tony Blair is worried that the voters will measure a Labour government against perfection rather than the real alternative "
Although they will not overdo it, throughout the campaign Labour will suggest they quite understand that many people think they have not done enough.

And they don't mind that too much.

As one of Mr Blair's aides put it to me "then we'll be arguing about speed not direction."

For it is crucial for them to suggest that the Conservatives would take Britain in a different direction.

Tony Blair personally is worried that the media and the voters will measure a Labour government against perfection rather than the real alternative, a Conservative government.

Day One and The Choice is already emerging as Labour's big theme.

That, and lots of pretty pictures.



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