TONY Blair seems to enjoy making life difficult for David Blunkett, his Education Secretary. Just as tricky discussions on performance-related pay seem to be getting somewhere, he alienates the teachers with a speech which tramples on all the current sensitivities. Union leaders involved in head-to-head negotiations at the Department for Education and Employment have been forced back to the barricades, loudly defending their troops.
Mr Blair took this risk for reasons which have little to do with education. Having over-egged the pudding in last month's conference speech, apparently blaming the Tory party for the death of Martin Luther King and the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, it was time to hammer a few "forces of conservatism" on the left.
Yet teachers and teaching have changed enormously over the past 15 years. And the Prime Minister did say that he was proud of them; that most do "a fantastic job". So why did the positive comments have so much less impact than the negative? Because the big criticisms in his speech were leaked almost a week beforehand, for maximum publicity. Teachers know that Mr Blair's attacks are part of a bigger political game. And they feel used.