We've had Bambi and Tony the inspirational. Now meet the bloke next door

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The Independent Online
The words were clearly marked in silver on the pedestal, in case anyone had forgotten: The Prime Minister. Apparently they came in handy.

"There is still a stage where I look around when they say Prime Minister to see who they're talking about," said Tony Blair, grinning as he stepped behind it. "But I'll get used to it."

We have seen many Tony Blairs since he took over leadership of the Labour Party, and subsequently the country: the short-lived Bambi, Tony the Ruthless, Tony the Inspirational. But yesterday the 130-strong audience in Worcester's Guildhall, venue for the first "People's Question and Answer" session, were treated to a different, modest Tony - Tony the Bloke Next Door.

Perhaps befitting an audience from one of the election's key marginals - C2 Worcester woman was fiercely courted by both sides - Tony sought to emphasise the point by stripping to his shirt and declining to sit down.

"It's a slightly different kind of question time to those in the House of Commons ... well, I hope so," he said.

He began with a short speech outlining the Government's new crime Bill which contained "new punishments" for young people who had committed anti- social crimes, including reparation orders for damage they may have caused.

The Government, to emphasise its determination to clean up the streets, had cleverly arranged for a mechanical roadsweeper to drone noisily up and down outside the building, until the PM was forced briefly to break off and wait for it to pass.

Fresh from a walkabout on a council estate in Redditch, Mr Blair was keen to emphasise that he would be tough on the causes of crime - including "kids as young as 10 or 11".

"I think it's important that young people committing crimes realise that there is going to be a penalty that will follow as a result," he warned.

This meant no repeat cautioning. "It's not very different to how you try to bring up your own children. I'm not saying we're very good at that because we're probably not," he said modestly.

The audience, which comprised local residents, members of voluntary groups and criminal justice agencies, and pupils, were largely impressed, and fielded low-key, non-confrontational questions and waited patiently for the answers..

Compared to the election campaign, this must have seemed a doddle, and the Prime Minister graciously lobbed a few questions out to police officersfor their views.

Occasionally he had to deflect a tricky one, such as whether the Government would extend the blasphemy laws to other religions.

And someone raised the unpleasant question of extra funding, which, as Mr Blair said, couldn't be addressed "or the Chancellor would be after him".

But there was a stern warning to the makers of "alcopops" - "a serious problem that we have to tackle". Jack Straw, he says, "would tackle it, and tackle it firmly".

In general, however, he sought to reaffirm his message that tackling crime had to be a matter for cooperation between agencies and society, and a balance between rights and responsibilities.

It would be wrong of him, he said, to promise any more. So he didn't. But the audience seemed impressed, even the young people who felt he had dwelt too long on them as a source of crime. Such as the pupils of Worcester Sixth Form College.

"He seemed sincere, not like he was putting on an act," said Claire Maidment. "I think it's good he came here. We thought he'd go to a big city."

And an almost universally positive response seemed to suggest that a Prime Minister can elicit a lot of goodwill by even appearing to take the electorate's views on board. Local tenant Barry Pederson agreed.

"The main thing is, I now know I've got a government that's going to listen to our views. I think he's absolutely genuine," he said.

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