Our diarist says Blair's visit to a campus in Crawley last week shows how the Number 10 spin machine has evolved
To Sussex, where the Prime Minister was all smiles as he toured Central Sussex college last week. In the competition to see who has the shiniest teeth - otherwise known as modern British politics - the visit was a happy coincidence of timing for Tony Blair's spin-doctors. David Cameron, the aspiring Tory leader, also visited Abingdon and Witney college in Oxfordshire last week.
So how did Tony get on?
Pretty well, as far as the students were concerned, but there were mumblings of discontent among the assembled press.
Photographers were made to stand on a raised area to one side of the action, like naughty boys, as the PM walked among the students. One upset the Number 10 team by jumping down in search of a more interesting angle, only to be ushered back to his position.
And what about a nice picture of the PM leaving? The photographers were told there was "no departure facility". Apparently, all this shepherding of the press was for "security" reasons.
Sometimes these events are a good opportunity to pick up some clues about the Government's thinking. In a line from his speech which didn't bode well for the forthcoming FE spending announcement, Mr Blair said: "Where ever you are in the world today, education and training in schools is going to be the future."
You didn't really mean that, did you Tony?
All this is in sharp contrast to the 1997 Uxbridge by-election, in Middlesex, when Claire Walker, a chum on a local newspaper I worked on, went to interview the PM before his visit to the constituency in support of his candidate - Andrew Slaughter, a fresh-faced barrister who had been parachuted in, in favour of the local Labour party's favourite.
The interview was carried out at Number 10 immediately before the Uxbridge visit and my former colleague, in an amazing example of brass neck, asked the PM whether she could have a lift in the cavalcade because yours truly was too mean to let her come back by cab.
He sportingly said yes, despite the fact that, just a few minutes earlier, she had told him, and Alistair Campbell, that Labour had no chance of winning the by-election (which, indeed, it didn't).
Well, they did ask. On the way to Uxbridge, the convoy was running ahead of schedule, so one of Mr Blair's press officers asked her if there was anywhere they could stop for a cup of tea.
On her instructions, the cars pulled over outside what turned out to be a greasy spoon cafe (never trust a journalist), where my colleague proceeded to interview the PM over a bacon sandwich while an extremely obliging press officer took pictures with a disposable camera rustled up from a nearby chemist's.
How times have changed.
But fair play to Tony and David, who made more effort than the London MPs invited last week to a presentation by the Learning and Skills Council of its exciting "Agenda for Change" at the House of Commons.
Most of the neatly-trimmed cucumber sandwiches were left to be scavenged by journalists and other hangers-on, after just two MPs turned up.
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