Nuggets to replace the spin cycle

7th May 2004 at 01:00
Advertisements for headteacher vacancies may be at record levels, as The Times reported on Saturday. Tony Blair's "unscheduled appearance" at the NAHT conference was meant to make clear there was no vacancy for one important leadership post.

Normally the Prime Minister's speech would have been widely trailed in the Sunday papers. Not this time, much to the chagrin of the Observer's Kamal Ahmed, who claimed this signalled a search for new "policy nuggets".

A more likely explanation was that Mr Blair's advisers were determined to avoid a repeat of fiascos over the European referendum and immigration, where new policies were dubbed "inept U-turns" after excessive spin.

There were several modest "policy nuggets" prompting newspapers to report the speech in different ways. The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Sky News focused on the PM's exhortation to parents to help schools over discipline, while BBC News and the Guardian preferred his announcement of more free nursery places for two-year-olds. The shrewd announcement of a planned change to three-year budgets linked to the school year ensured what the Telegraph conceded was "loud applause" from his audience.

In any case, this speech was about more than new initiatives. It was intended to signal that Mr Blair was firmly in charge of the domestic agenda and as the Mirror put it, to "move on the front foot after weeks of difficulty" ahead of this week's Labour local election campaign launch.

The absence of any "big story" kept the speech off the front pages, but also produced some of the PM's best and least jaundiced newspaper coverage for weeks.

However, it didn't prevent the NAHT rebellion over what the Independent called "school budget cuts" - or, more precisely, insufficient extra money to pay for new support staff. Nor has it halted speculation about Mr Blair's future. The crisis in Iraq and expected poor results in the June elections will keep that alive. Yet, it was at least a reminder that education is still occasionally the Government's top priority.

Conor Ryan is a former adviser to David Blunkett

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