Awkward audience for the PM is silenced by Cherie

Cherie Booth came to the rescue of her husband yesterday after a question and answer session in which he had been asked some of the most testing, directly personal and inquisitorial questions on his premiership from any audience - let alone one made up of foreign students.

She launched into an impromptu rendition of the Beatles' "When I'm 64" after the Prime Minister had been pressed to "sing a song" by a group of Chinese university students who had just subjected him to an intense and highly critical inquisition on his decision to go to war with Iraq and on the death of David Kelly.

The Liverpudlian Ms Booth broke into the first verse of the number - "When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now/Will you still be sending me a Valentine/birthday greetings, bottle of wine? ..." - after Mr Blair had appealed to her to meet the students' demand for a song at the end of what had been a direct and sometimes tense question-and-answer session at Tsingua University, Beijing.

She startled cameramen but delighted her audience by agreeing to sing the number after Mr Blair beckoned her over to join students who had been discussing with the Prime Minister his fondness for the guitar.

Mr Blair added for benefit of the film crews present: "Anyone who thinks that this is scripted this morning ... this is certainly not scripted."

The first question to Mr Blair from Lu Yunan, a 21-year-old journalism student, could hardly have been more politely delivered or more pointedly phrased: "At this tragic time in your political career, how do you feel? Have you ever regretted making the decision to start the war?" But the preamble to the question, the first Mr Blair confronted in a 45-minute meeting yesterday at the university, was blunter still: "Nowadays when we think about the UK we think about the war and the tragedy of Dr Kelly. I am sorry to say that."

After a series of high-level meetings with the Chinese leadership free of any discussion on the deepening crisis he faces at home, the Prime Minister had to face a courteous but dauntingly articulate audience of English-speaking students anxious to press him on the death of Dr Kelly, the Iraq war, health service funding, Europe, the British press and even tuition fees - just about the whole gamut of issues that will dog him up to the Labour Party conference and well beyond.

Mr Blair was the first foreign leader to risk a question-and-answer session with the students. In all, they asked 16 questions. And while he handled them calmly, he can hardly have expectedthe students to be so knowledgeable and topical - to an extent almost inconceivable if British students were questioning a visiting Chinese leader.

Ling Nan, a 20-year-old computer sciences at the university, was even more personal. She asked: "Facing the tragedy of Dr David Kelly, you said that you had no intention of resigning over his death. Can you tell us frankly, what was you your feeling when when you heard the news on the plane to Japan, and how can you regain your people's trust?"

And he was pressed by another student to say whether there was any "solid foundation in international law" for the war and by another to "tell me here honestly, like talking to your own children, that you never lied on the Iraq war".

'How did you feel when you heard of Dr Kelly's death?'

Questions to the Prime Minister from students at Tsinghua University, Beijing

Lu Yunan, 21-year-old journalism student: "When we think of the UK, we think of the Iraq war. Do you think this is the toughest time you have faced in your career? Have you regretted making the decision to start a war?"

Blair: "I have no doubt at all that Iraq was trying to develop those weapons. There is a group of people in Iraq now who are looking both at the programmes and at the weapons themselves, and when they come to make their report we will be able to see what they have uncovered. Then people will see what the truth is ... When that happens, maybe we will have a more informed debate about this whole question ... But I don't regret it [the Iraq conflict]. I believe no matter how difficult it was, that it was the right thing to do ... in terms of the suffering of the Iraqi people ... for my country and for the wider world."

Ling Nan, 20, computer science student: "Can you tell us frankly what you felt when you heard the news [about the death of Dr David Kelly] on the plane to Tokyo? How can you get through this political crisis and regain your people's trust?"

Blair: "This is a desperately sad time for the family of Dr Kelly. I don't want to say more about that situation except that there will be a proper independent inquiry into what happened."

Unnamed student: "Can you tell me honestly, like you were talking to your children, that you never lied about the Iraq war?"

Blair: "What would I say to my children? That I believe passionately we could not allow Saddam Hussein to carry on developing weapons of mass destruction, and don't be in any doubt he was doing it ... And I took that decision that I believed to be right and I have to stand by that ... In my country, if the people disagree with me, they can put me out of office, they can vote me out and they can vote someone else in... If the British people disagree, they have got the right to say, 'Well, we will put him out'."

Unnamed student: "In the recent summit you mentioned that one country could invade and overthrow the government of another to liberate the people, and the issue was opposed by all other attending countries. Is there any solid foundation in the international law to support this view?

Blair: "I don't believe it is right that one country can just go and invade another country and liberate its people. I think liberation of people is a good thing, but it has got to be done according to rules ... People worry about countries thinking they can run other countries ... really what you are saying is you have got to be careful having a situation where if America - probably what you mean - comes in and says, 'Well I don't like this government, I am going to go and get rid of it.' I agree, you can't have a situation like that ... this is what I was talking about in the American Congress. I was saying we can't just have a free-for- all where people do whatever they want. But it is also true that as the world moves closer together, and it matters more what countries do, because they can affect other countries, we can't just say a country behaves in a terrible way and then just let them do it."

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