Election '97: '24 hours to change the country'

Steve Boggan aboard 'Blairforce One' reports on the last day of the Labour campaign
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The Independent Online
There was a time when the siting of a Labour leader's election speech next to a Titanic memorial might have seemed a tad injudicious. Yesterday, however, as Tony Blair's campaign hurtled to its conclusion in Scotland and the North East, all such omens seemed only to conjure up thoughts of John Major and his beleaguered cabinet.

The memorial, a modest affair, bore the names of two Dumfries townsmen who went down with the ship when she sank in April 1912, and was situated in the town's Dock Park amid hundreds of cheering Labour supporters.

As Mr Blair spoke of his plans for Britain's future, imploring the crowd to vote and not be complacent, reminding the people of their choice - new Labour or five more Tory years - it did not go unnoticed that one of the Titanic victims, John Law Hume, was a member of the band that played as the vessel went down.

It raised a few laughs and provided a striking contrast between the gloom of the Major campaign and the quiet confidence of Mr Blair's. There was a feeling - never spoken by his staff - that nothing could go wrong.

One onlooker, whose nose had become sunburnt waiting for the Labour leader under brilliant blue skies, said he could imagine grey clouds visiting Mr Major wherever he went.

And there were more laughs at John Major's expense during an appearance on the Dumfries platform by Richard Wilson, the star of, inevitably, One Foot in the Grave.

"This Tory government," he said, "is polluted by a bunch of sleazy, rotten, shifty-eyed self-seekers.

"Trusting John Major with the future of the country is like trusting your wife and daughter with Alan Clark."

We had arrived in Dumfries, Tory-held with a 6,500 majority, after rides aboard the Labour leader's BAC 1-11 - or Blairforce One as it has affectionately become known - and a Wagnerian convoy of 11 helicopters. Then it was back on board the choppers to Stockton to greet hundreds of market day shoppers; onwards by bus to visit a school and a police station in Middlesborough; finally ending the day at Trimdon Labour Club in Mr Blair's Sedgefield constituency.

Labour's campaign trail has been littered with celebrities, from Anita Roddick and Patrick Stewart (from Star Trek) to Sinead Cusack and Antony Minghella, director of The English Patient. And yesterday was no exception.

After Richard Wilson came Steve Cram, the former Olympic runner, in Stockton, and the actress Helen Mirren at Middlesborough police station. There was an impression that the Labour campaign star-backers had been winners, or at least the sort of people who backed winners.

So, as Mr Blair hobnobbed with the star of Prime Suspect at a police station, discussing zero tolerance policing and rounding off an almost flawless - if dull - campaign, Conservative observers were left to console themselves with the knowledge that, should Labour win, Tory supporters Lord Lloyd Webber and the comedian Paul Daniels had promised to leave the country.

Mr Blair rounded off his campaign last night in his Sedgefield constituency with a warning that voters had only 24 hours to change the country.

Speaking at Trimdon Labour Club, he thanks party workers, but insisted he was not taking victory for granted.

During an emotional speech, he said: "We have only 24 hours to save the National Health Service; 24 hours to give our children the education they need in our schools.

"Twenty-four hours to give hope to our young people and security to our elderly; 24 hours to decide how to build that decent, great British society we so yearn for.

"Twenty-four hours in which the decision about the future of this country will be made."

Mr Blair and his wife, Cherie, will vote in the constituency today and are expected to spend the rest of the day with their children at the constituency home.