Mother upstages Blair on live TV show

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Indy Politics

The mother of an autistic child has reminded Tony Blair about the dangers of meeting the voters face to face.

The mother of an autistic child has reminded Tony Blair about the dangers of meeting the voters face to face.

Maria Hutchings, 43, a housewife, said she was acting as the "forgotten voice of Middle England" when she marched up to the Prime Minister during a live studio discussion on channel Five television yesterday to protest at the closure of special-needs schools.

After listening to Mr Blair saying it was important to maintain school discipline, she could contain her irritation no longer, and shouted: "Tony, that's rubbish!" The presenter, Matthew Wright, had to urge her to sit down, saying: "Hang on, hang on, hang on - if you wouldn't mind sitting down."

Mrs Hutchings, a Labour supporter, who has canvassed for the party, was visibly agitated as she pleaded with Mr Blair: "Please, let me speak to you." She was persuaded to return to her seat by a studio assistant during the live broadcast of The Wright Stuff.

Mr Blair was clearly discomfited, but today he will tell Labour candidates his clash with Mrs Hutchings was the kind of exchange needed to stop voters being turned off by politics. In a strategy briefing in front of the cameras for the first time, he will urge candidates to drop "photo opportunities", in favour of more live phone-in shows on radio, public meetings or doorstep and street canvassing.

Mr Blair will say that Labour's strategy is "about the politics of connection, more local, more face-to-face meetings". He will promise a more personal campaign to overcome the disillusionment among voters that, according to an NOP poll in The Independent yesterday, threatens the lowest turnout since 1918.

Mrs Hutchings, who travelled to the Birmingham studio from Benfleet, Essex, said she had been inspired by Sharon Storer, the partner of a cancer sufferer, who harangued Mr Blair during a hospital visit in the same city at the 2001 election. Her son, John Paul Panzavecchia, 10, who is autistic, attends a special school which Mrs Hutchings claimed was threatened with closure in a drive for more integration of special-needs children into other schools.

"It was the only way I could get his attention and become his Achilles heel in the way that that lady was in the last election," Mrs Hutchings said. "This is the new way to get issues into the media. Middle England feels impotent. Tony Blair has been looking out of the country at wars and issues abroad, so Middle Englanders are the forgotten ones."

Later, Essex County Council denied the school, Cedar Hall in Thundersley, was under threat. Tracey Chapman, cabinet member with responsibility for special schools, told the BBC there was "absolutely no intention" to close the school. However, she admitted its provision might alter under council restructuring.

Labour strategists had allowed Mr Blair to risk live television to get his message across to the target audience of women at home with children, who are seen as key swing voters.

Mr Blair was on The Wright Stuff for an hour. This was followed by a question-and-answer session in Milton Keynes, questions from a panel in Downing Street, and a viewers' question hour hosted by Kirsty Young.

LABOUR AND SPECIAL SCHOOLS

More than 70 special schools have been closed since Labour came to power, according to figures released yesterday by the Conservatives.

Labour's policy of inclusion has resulted in a drive to educate more children with special educational needs in mainstream schools.

It admits there are now fewer special schools but says the number of places within them has remained roughly constant since 1997, as they provide "bigger and better" schools. There are still more than 1,000 special schools in England.

The Conservatives have pledged to halt the closure of special schools, arguing that while some special needs children thrive in mainstream schools, others do not.

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