Tories banish by-election blues

Josephine Gardiner

Last Friday should have been a date with despair for the Tory campaigners in Dudley West. The party was still in shock after the Government's humiliating defeat over VAT on fuel, the Prime Minister appeared on the brink of abandoning the Sisyphean struggle to "reassert his authority" and the polls were predicting a landslide victory for Labour in the by-election caused by the death of Tory MP Dr John Blackburn. Out on the streets of Dudley, voters were haranguing Edwina Currie about the Chancellor's "punishment budget" and "Tory sleaze".

Perversely, the mood was defiant and upbeat. Both parties seemed to have designated education as Friday's campaign issue, and the row over Tony Blair's choice of a grant-maintained school for his son offered the Tories a straw of hope which they clutched at with the legendary strength of drowning men.

After a quick tour through the high-gloss corridors and computer-stuffed classrooms of Kingswinford GM school, Graham Postles, the Conservative candidate defending a 5,789 majority, was swapping sarcasms over coffee and eclairs with Eric Forth, the Minister of State for Education.

"I'm delighted that Mr Blair has exercised the freedom of choice that the Conservative Government has given him," said Mr Postles, going on to accuse the Labour candidate, Ian Pearson, of ignoring the three GM schools in the constituency. "Perhaps my opposite number has been fully briefed by his leader, so he feels he doesn't need to come here."

Eric Forth, up from London wearing a typically uncompromising tie (huge yellow Van Gogh sunflowers), was happy to twist the knife - "this is a splendid example of a parent exercising freedom of choice, but what puzzles me is why none of the schools in Islington were good enough" - and to suggest that the party was split on the GM issue: "One can only conclude that the Labour leader has exercised parental choice over his son's education and left the rest of the party behind."

Mr Forth also said that he found "extremely worrying" a statement by Labour education spokesman Peter Kilfoyle that Labour would abolish preferential funding for GM schools. "This suggests that he simply doesn't understand the nature of the process; a GM school has to provide everything the LEA would have provided . . . we keep hearing that Labour would absorb GM schools in a 'local democratic framework', but what does this mean?" It was hard not to admire the high spirits of the Tory candidate in the face of his predicted humiliation at the polls. A natural politician, Mr Postles seemed to be enjoying himself enormously, and knew just when to parry an awkward question (about the sincerity of the Government's commitment to expanding nursery education) with a litany of impressive but uncheckable statistics.

Labour, meanwhile, was playing it cool, apparently reluctant to jeopardise its position with anything controversial. David Blunkett, the shadow education secretary, made a swift but statesmanlike tour of two Dudley schools accompanied by Ian Pearson. Mr Blunkett refused to be inveigled into any discussion of Labour's policy on GM schools, apart from saying that he stood by his recent memo to colleagues, in which he confirmed that Labour's policy on opting out had not softened.

Instead, the under-fives seemed to be his theme for the day. At a nursery attached to Brookmoor primary he said: "If there's one thing I've learnt in the past six weeks in the job, it's that the status given to the early years is just as important as for A-level and university. If we don't get that right, there's no point worrying about GCSE grades."

At a meeting with a group of mothers lobbying for more nurseries in Dudley, where provision is as patchy as in the rest of Britain, Mr Blunkett said that he would be asking councils to draw up suggestions on nurseries early next year. "We could save a lot of time if we had plans on the desk within a month of taking office." The mothers spoke of "horrendous waiting lists" and of children stuck in toddler groups, if they were lucky, until the age of five.

If Mr Blunkett ever becomes education secretary, we will at least be spared those excruciatingly inept TV encounters with children in classrooms attempted by education secretaries in the past (notably Thatcher, Joseph and Patten). Mr Blunkett seemed utterly at ease with children of all ages and obviously enjoyed their company.

At Pensnett Technology School (an 11-16 comprehensive), Mr Blunkett stopped for coffee and Christmas carols. "The only bad thing about Christmas," he quipped, "is that you hear an awful lot about shepherds." What could he mean?

As darkness fell on the high street, the Tories brought out Edwina Currie to do battle with Dudley shoppers. Some strode determinedly past the little posse of cameramen, party workers and reporters surrounding the MP. Perhaps they still felt snubbed by the Chancellor's famous remark about the unimportance of "speeches made on a wet night in Dudley".

But one of the most passionate pedestrians talked about education. David Gwynne, a chemistry undergraduate home from Oxford for the holidays, gave an eloquent off-the-cuff speech about student loans: "Some of my friends are Pounds 4,000 in debt." "You're a member of the Labour party, aren't you?" accused one of Mrs Currie's minders, hustling her away.

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