Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Suave Performance, but PM Has Grim Edge; AS TENSION OVER TOP-UP FEES INCREASES, BLAIR FACES THE PUBLIC GUNS ALONE COMMENTARY

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Suave Performance, but PM Has Grim Edge; AS TENSION OVER TOP-UP FEES INCREASES, BLAIR FACES THE PUBLIC GUNS ALONE COMMENTARY

Article excerpt

Byline: ANNE MCELVOY

THE last time Tony Blair opted to face an entirely hostile audience was on the eve of Iraq, when he took on an audience of northern women who did not want to give war a chance. Mr Blair was bloodied. Afterwards he turned infuriated to Alastair Campbell and said: "Who the hell (I paraphrase slightly) set me up for that?"

But Mr Blair knows that the solo performance is his weapon of last resort and last night on Newsnight, he faced the public's guns again. When the going gets tough, Tony Blair trusts only himself.

The tension in the run-up to the topup fees vote and Hutton Report next week is etched on his face. His eyes are strained and his skin stretched.

Tackled on the manifesto pledge, the Prime Minister has always been a determined man. That determination has acquired a grim edge. He is still a winning debater, but a less charming presence than he once was.

Jeremy Paxman rounded on him for breaking the manifesto commitment not to introduce top-up fees in this parliament in spirit if not in letter. Mr Blair is on sticky ground here. It was a short-termist pledge last time round and it ignored the ongoing decline of our under-funded, over-expanded universities. It was a product of the complacency of his first term in power.

Not that Mr Blair could say this. He swung professionally into the mode of a suave insurance salesman, reeling off the advantages of his product.

"No family need find the money as the student is going through university," he announced. This is true - but it takes some chutzpah to redefine a policy which will charge people more for going to university than they do now as a beneficial shift.

The audience looked uneasy.

Would poor students be deterred by tuition fees? "They weren't in New Zealand," said Mr Blair. A sudden switch to university funding on the other side of the world is a ploy much beloved of the clever men of Downing Street, but it is not immensely reassuring to the public. …

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