What happens when the PM drops in

POLITICAL visits always get the cloak-and-dagger treatment, especially during an election campaign - and especially when the visitor is the prime minister.

POLITICAL visits always get the cloak-and-dagger treatment, especially during an election campaign - and especially when the visitor is the prime minister.

It's all because of security. No one wants to tip off any terrorists that the PM is about.

And the organisers don't want a visit like this to attract dozens of protesters - although it always seems as if die-hard protesters know about the visit somehow.

I'd put in a request for an interview several weeks ago, at the time I saw Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy, but nothing could be arranged at that time because Mr Blair was too busy.

But on the evening before the visit I received a call from a Labour party press officer: “Are you free to come to the Clacton area at lunchtime tomorrow?” He asked.

“We've got a couple of very important visitors.”

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You don't get called at eight at night if the visit is by a junior cabinet minister, so I tried to check what I was being told.

“Would I be right to assume that the visitor has a name beginning with B?” I asked.

“Erm, arr, I really can't say - but it'll be worth your while coming,” I was told - that was enough to persuade me who was coming to the region.

And even if it had turned out to be Gordon Brown, he may well be prime minister the next time we have a general election, so he would be worth talking to as well.

Early the next day there was confirmation of who the visitor was: “But don't say exactly where he's going until he's arrived,” I was told.

I arrived at Bishop's Park College between Clacton and Jaywick at 12.30pm - half an hour before Mr Blair was due to touch down.

A media section had been cordoned off so we could see him arrive, and just beyond the school's perimeter fence a group of protesters had just arrived.

To be more accurate two groups of protesters had arrived.

One was headed by the Respect candidate for Harwich John Tipple - who was determined to be as disrespectful as possible to the prime minister.

“Bliar, Bliar, Iraq's on Fire!” he yelled through a megaphone - attempting to address his comments to a gathering of teenagers who were watching the action.

His chants were relentless, drowning out a small group of other protesters who were trying to draw Mr Blair's attention to the closure of a special school in the area.

When the prime minister and Mrs Blair did arrive - and they were just a few minutes late - their car drove up just outside the school where they were greeted by some hand-picked students and escorted into the front door.

Mr Blair didn't look at the crowd of journalists or protesters - it was as if he was living in a separate bubble divorced from his surroundings.

However when a journalist pointed out the schools protesters - rather than the Respect crowd - to his press secretary David Hill, they did get their voice heard.

Mr Hill went to speak to them, told them that the closure of the school was a decision for (Conservative-controlled) Essex County Council and not for the government - but he did promise to tell Mr Blair about their concerns.

Once Mr Blair was inside the school, the press were invited in as well and were ushered up to the back of a French classroom where we watched a lesson for about 10 minutes until the PM appeared.

And in this atmosphere it was clear that he was feeling relaxed and at ease - he seemed far less tense than he had the last time I met him in 2002.

Maybe he was feeling relieved that he was nearing the end of the last election campaign he would have to fight.

By this time we had been joined by the London-based journalists who had followed him to Essex in a second helicopter.

Suddenly the local press were rubbing shoulders with Sir Trevor Macdonald and Prince Charles' favourite journalist Nicholas Witchell.

They were both much smaller than I had expected - now I can see why Private Eye has described Mr Witchell as being like an extra from Lord of the Rings!

Some of the students at the school seemed more interested in their appearance than that of the PM - Sir Trevor in particular was being keenly pursued by autograph hunters and some achieved the notable double of the Mr Blair's signature alongside that of the country's favourite newscaster!

Mr Blair met the students in the open-plan library area, and seemed to enjoy the chats.

And by the time he met journalists from the regional press for a series of one-to-one interviews he was well in his stride, oozing confidence and bonhomie.

Mr Blair visited the school on only its second day of operation - and it's difficult to imagine that much work was done by the students during the day.

Teachers were anxious to shepherd them away from Mr Tipple's protest, which prompted the Respect ranter to launch a further tirade against “censoring” the minds of schoolchildren.

During Mr and Mrs Blair's visit the school was peppered with young men in suits.

Some seemed permanently on their mobile phones arranging the next visit.

Others were wired up to earpieces and their eyes kept darting around - presumably they were Special Branch officers anxious to check that there was no one more dangerous than Mr Tipple about.

And then after a couple of hours the visit was all over - it wasn't a long trip, but it would unfair to describe it as a flying visit.

The national media got yet more pictures of the Blairs with children, the regional press got our turn to have a few minutes with him and to picture him in a location not a million miles from our home.

And presumably Mr Tipple went off and bought a bulk supply of Strepsils!

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