Five go to Downing Street

When the PM agreed to meet readers of 'Bliss', he needed his wits about him, says the magazine's deputy editor Annabel Brog
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The Independent Online

It's not every day a magazine lands an exclusive interview, nay five exclusive interviews, with the Prime Minister. It's rarer still that all the interviewers are between 14 and 17 years old.

It's not every day a magazine lands an exclusive interview, nay five exclusive interviews, with the Prime Minister. It's rarer still that all the interviewers are between 14 and 17 years old.

But Tony Blair had clearly been perturbed by the findings of Bliss magazine's recent Young People's Survey of Great Britain, in which 5,000 teenagers aired their views on everything from sex ed ("It's rubbish"), and crime ("Harsher sentencing, please"), to politics ("Boo to the war in Iraq"). Possibly it also came to his attention that when asked what they think of their PM, 82 per cent said they don't trust him.

Somewhere in the bowels of Downing Street a genius had realised it might be productive not to stand in silent collusion while the Daily Mail writes off all teenagers as oversexed delinquents, and to start wooing them instead. After all, a fair percentage of our readers will be able to vote next year...

So No. 10 invited us to interview the Prime Minister. We struck on the bright idea of recruiting readers to tell the PM how they want the country run, and hear what he had to say on the topics close to their hearts.

One day last month, we descended on Westminster, armed with five typical readers - 14 to 17 years old, savvy, opinionated and confident - all ready to take on Tony. I was dressed in teen-mag pink, and vibrating with nerves. They were dressed as themselves with attitudes which ranged from "whatever" (Claire Black, 15, Essex) to "kinda excited" (Laura McKinnie, 16, West Yorkshire).

Downing Street had laid on an interview with David Miliband (Minister for Schools) as the self-proclaimed "warm-up act", so our little posse trooped over to the DfES to grill him first. The Bliss delegates were not impressed - something to do with the fact that he said "Uh-huh" a lot while not listening to a thing they said. And where was the lunch we were promised? Our crew ended up eating lasagne and beans in the DfES canteen. Credit cards are not accepted, so we had to make a collection at the till.

We hit Downing Street at 2.15pm. Blair's charming press officer, Jo Gibbons, led us through the corridors, pointing out places of interest ("that's the staircase that looks like the one in Love, Actually", "that's the toilet where Noel Gallagher allegedly smoked a spliff", "that's where we keep the cutlery - people always steal teaspoons when they come to No. 10"), before leading us into an elegant function room to wait.

I was prepared for the PM to bounce into the room clad head-to-toe in New Labour and dropping his "t"s. In fact, the only nod to "trendy dad" was the rolled-up shirt sleeves. He was disarmingly low-key and relaxed. The teenagers, and the Deputy Editor, were charmed.

Sixteen-year-old Jodi Bickley from Birmingham - wearing purple hair, lashings of black eyeliner and a lip-ring - went first. "You need to address the drug problem," she announced. "I see kids as young as 12 taking drugs every day. All my friends have dealers' numbers in their phones. I'm straight-edge though."

Tony clearly didn't know what straight-edge is (an alcohol, nicotine and drug-free zone, Tony) but he blinked wisely and nodded as Jodi outlined her demands: stricter sentencing for pushers operating in schools; compulsory community service with addicts for anyone caught using; a government-compiled database of addicts willing to talk to students. Tony responded at length, with comments like: "I like your database idea... there are new sentencing guidelines coming out for anyone caught pushing to kids [but] it's difficult to catch them."

One by one the girls submitted their pitches. "We need better sex ed," demanded Laura. "Three girls in my school were pregnant at 12, but the only sex ed lesson I've ever had was this year. I'm 16! By then, it was far too late." Mr Blair, for the record, went bright red and stared at his shoes.

Claire talked about a school friend who committed suicide last year, and demanded teenage depression be taken seriously, and Sarah Donaldson, 14, from Suffolk, addressed inadequate policies on bullying. Blair and Bliss agreed that what young people really need are confidential, school-based, drop-in centres, staffed by trained specialists, to look after students' emotional, physical and sexual health.

Kirsty Williams, 17, from Swansea, went last and talked the Prime Minister into submission on the subject of the environment. "You have to make America sign the Kyoto agreement," she insisted.

"Well," muttered the Prime Minister. "We will do our best..."

"Maybe you should send me," fired back Kirsty.

Mr Blair listened, agreed in places where it wasn't too contentious, and outlined what his government had planned. He was, though it kills me to admit it, superb - without actually saying a thing.

The final surprise was when he agreed to pose, clutching a copy of the magazine with Jordan on the cover, for cheesy photographs with each girl.

"Jo," he announced as we shook hands goodbye. "Make sure you get everyone's addresses and send the girls an outline of what we have planned in each area."

I reckon that's five votes he's got in the bag. If he's still there when they're old enough to vote, of course.

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