Politics: Just have patience, Blair tells his audience

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TONY BLAIR made a heartfelt plea for public patience yesterday, when the Prime Minister and Gordon Brown met 250 people for a post-Budget question-and-answer session.

Towards the end of a one-hour meeting with a cross section of community representatives in the assembly hall of Geoffrey Chaucer School, south London, during which demands were made for pensioners, charities, business, childcare, further education, public transport and the arts, Mr Blair suddenly broke away from the detailed questions.

"Everybody wants everything and wants it the day before yesterday," he said.

He warned that he intended to be a Prime Minister for the long-term, laying down strong foundations, and there was no question whatever of taking short-term, short-sighted policies, for example, by relieving business of the pressure from the high-value pound. He said the Conservatives had taken short-term decisions based on false prospectuses, and had created record interest rates, record repossessions and negative equity. "I never want to go back to those days again," he said. "The decisions that we take now, difficult though they are, are based on a long-term strategy."

Everybody wanted money from him now, but the Government was setting priorities and was moving steadily, step by step, and as Prime Minister, he had to have "the courage to say, `No'". Mr Blair then launched into his version of the Monty Python spoof from The Life of Brian, in which people had asked: "What have the Romans done for us?" He said the Government had in fact made a start on welfare to work, schools, hospitals, and pensions. "And we are going to do more," he said. "But it will take time... We'll do what we can, but we can't do it all at once."

The difference between the styles of Mr Blair and Mr Brown could not have been more marked - with the Prime Minister taking his jacket off and regularly smiling at the audience - but the session was also marked by a double-act banter between the two men.

At an early stage of the proceedings, Mr Brown said some of the questions were not so much reflections on his Budget statement as early representations for the next Budget - "if Tony lets me give it". Mr Blair quipped, "You're doing fine", to which Mr Brown replied, quick as a flash: "It's not a plea."

The only hard news came in a throwaway line from the Chancellor, who disclosed that he expected an announcement to be made on the future of state pensions in June, following completion of a Government review.

At the end of the meeting, there was another double-act exchange, when Mr Blair said people who had not got their questions in could send them in. "Difficult questions to Number 10," Mr Brown said. "And I will pass them on to Number 11," the Prime Minister added.