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Blunkett's well-chewed soundbites

Susan Young spent a day shadowing the shadow education spokesman.

Should David Blunkett ever fancy a change from Labour's education portfolio, his natural talents might fit him for a stint at Environment.

For recycling is something he appears to know a good deal about, on the evidence of three official engagements on one day earlier this week.

Fresh from the triumph of the Easter conferences the Labour spokesman appeared determined to hold on to the initiative. His guide dog Lucy may be a placid Labrador: on present form her master is the sort of canine that only gives up the postman's trousers for a juicier pair of legs.

And so he used the same anti-Shephard soundbite at least three times in one day, and was so pleased with a jibe at Prime Minister John Major's decision to allow the Tory Euro-rebels back under the Whip that this, too, got more than one airing. You might think the PM was rather outside the immediate battle over education, but in Mr B's present all-conquering mood, the best form of attack is attack.

As his handling of Labour's education press conference in the local government election campaign showed. He listed and extolled the educational virtues of the councils under its control. Increased nursery provision here, Reading Recovery there, a doubling of GCSE passes in Knowsley - Mr B had a little list, and none of them were missed.

Would he break the mould of politics by failing to attack his opponent? No. "Gillian Shephard's charm offensive may have been charming," he beamed, "but it was also offensive."

Less than 90 minutes later, Mr B was addressing headteachers at an Institute of Directors' gathering cheerfully entitled "Back me or sack me".

The previous speaker's helpful hints for heads had included three painless ways of ejecting useless teachers, a subject which once might have deterred Labour politicians better than whole heads of garlic. But not Mr B, whose Fresh Start views on the provision of new staffs for failing schools caused such a furore at the teacher conferences.

"Much of what I would have said has already been said in one venue or another," he admitted, before repeating the charm offensive quip and airing his second leitmotif of the day: "Back me or sack me is a very appropriate title this morning - eight Conservative MPs said that to the PM and he agreed to back them."

But he stood by what he had already said on the Fresh Start idea, pointing out that none of his audience would get on board a high-speed train with a poor driver, why should teachers be any different?

What was needed, he said, was a much clearer procedure with training for all members of governing bodies, the development of a general teaching council and the involvement of employers and union representatives in difficult cases.

The headteachers - representing a cross-section of local authority, grant-maintained and independent schools - appeared delighted with what he had to say and questions ignored the Fresh Start idea, asking about fixed-term contracts ("a googly," said Mr B), increased resources, and Labour's plans for GM schools. His line appeared slightly softer than previously, promising that, when Labour's partnership document appears in late June, diversity "in terms of ethos" will be maintained.

And so on to the Commons for Education Questions, largely taken up with Conservative-friendly questions. It was half an hour before Mr Blunkett opened his mouth and when he did it was to repeat his charm offensive remark about Mrs Shephard - an opinion of which she seemed perfectly aware.

"I think the Honourable Gentleman has been practising from his press release, " she snapped. Then a question on truancy gave him another opening. He asked Minister of State Eric Forth: "Would the minister tell the House what he would think of a headteacher that had a group of disaffected students outside a school and allowed them back in although they had made no promise to improve their behaviour or agree to school rules, and would he agree with me that the result of that would be to undermine the credibility of the headteacher and the discipline of the schools?"

The House roared. Mr Forth stepped forward to the Dispatch Box and neatly sidestepped the trap. And so it was left to John Major to get his revenge, presumably unwittingly. "Everyone should avoid using expressions which give offence to anyone on the receiving end of such expressions," he opined piously, on the subject of Bernard Manning.

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