Election '97: Blair basks in the sunshine of approval

John Walsh relishes his first journey on the Labour leader's cavalcade
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"Sun's out," said Tony Blair, squinting into the unseasonal rays. "Couple o' weeks, Tories'll be out as well".

Mr Blair was not, of course, wearing sunglasses, since they're considered bad for Labour's image ("They don't want him looking like General Jaruzelski," a woman explained). But he was affecting, if only for this morning, a coarsened, I'm-talking-to-a-taxi-driver variant of his usual clipped RP, the better to woo the citizens of Crawley.

The former, a marginal constituency, with its featureless shopping centre, its "Living" superstore and its recent crime wave seems an unlikely fiefdom for Nicholas Soames, the portly endomorph who once suggested the Princess of Wales needed psychiatric help. Crawley isn't mad about him.

"'E's a tart," said Mick, a local bruiser with weapons-grade halitosis, "'E spends all 'is time in 'orsham," - where, indeed, he is shifting his tents for the next election - "and 'e might just as well, cos 'e's done nothing for Crawley."

Dissatisfaction and a desire for change was in the air, though from which direction none could tell. A venerable Sikh, his long beard knotted at the end as though he were the victim of a practical joke, complained that none of the parties was doing anything "for the betterment of the layman".

Only through the good offices of the local Labour candidate, Laura Moffatt, people said, had the local hospital kept its casualty department open.

But when the big grey bus with the sexy smoked windows had drawn up as part of a tour of Sussex, which included Brighton, Mr Blair had basked in his role as bringer of good news.

They loved him, with or without the Essex delivery.

"Only a couple of weeks to go," he assured them, and they could start putting young people in work, robbers out of work and make the blind see and the lame walk.

He surveyed the sea of Sussex crumblies before him. "And I think we should do something for our pensioners as well, don't you?" Yes, they jolly well did.

"We'll stop this VAT on fuel, for a start ..." Like the most shameless trouper he was giving his audience what they wanted. What would come next? Subsidised Saga holidays?

Tony descended, linked up with Cherie, and went walkabout. The crowd formed a square round him like a little paddock, around which he strolled and autographed and laughed and joshed, a thoroughbred schmoozer.

"You said nothing about Europe, Tony," said a man. "Do you think the people of Crawley don't want to hear about Europe?" Tony glanced up. "We've made it very clear that we support a referendum on Europe," he said, as he'd been saying for weeks.

After a while you long for a different, original, unpredigested reply.

Instead, you get jokey moments. "Tony, what are you going to do for British rock music?" asked a 22-year-old groover. "I'll tell you what I'm going to do," grated Blair, "I'm never going to play in a rock band again."

And then a small voice asked: "Tony, are you going to be our Prime Minister?" Assuming he had encountered the Crawley village idiot, Blair grinned. "That's the general idea."But "Will you be the prime minister under a Federal Europe?" Blair was nonplussed."Look," he said, "I don't intend to be in a federal Europe." Good God, we thought, a real answer at last.

It's all about having the right stuff

Newcomers to the world of election coverage, such as your humble scribe, prepare themselves for disappointment. It cannot, they tell themself, be as brazenly Machiavellian, as crudely manipulated and as crassly rhetorical as the sharper political mickey-takers make it seem.

Amazing to report, it's exactly like that. Start with the uniform. Forget your humble spiral notepad and Scripto pen 'n' pencil set. You'll need a laptop computer, a jump-lead, a tape-recorder, a mobile phone, a plug-line, a bleep, a bleep-holster, three pens, a pair of shades, security tags... Soon you resemble a child kitted out in one of those Junior Safari kits, with compass and binoculars.

Next you get to the press conference, where you marvel at the bustle of the screened highlights of yesterday's campaigning. What was, by all accounts, a pretty dull day in Oldham became through jump-cut editing and random bursts of D:Ream's Things Can Only Get Better, all bustle and excitement, like the trailer to Independence Day. You watch Gordon Brown glowering (as advertised), Tony Blair's born-again Christian expression of ecstasy and David Blunkett's impersonation of a slightly plastered distant relative at a formal family gathering.

On the Battle-bus, all is bonhomie, newspaper-perusal, coffee, almond croissants and a devotion to the teensy-weensy minutiae of speeches and quotations that would not disgrace an academy of Jesuits. But you know that all the journalists are hamming it up like mad. No-one, not Christopher Ricks exegising a line of Keats, could be more enrapturedly keen to extract meaning from the most unpromising material.

The political rhetoric was from Central Casting as well. I liked Mr Blair's cool assurance that "The Tories have doubled crime in this country" but couldn't help wondering about his response to personal Tory abuse. "It doesn't matter how many insults they hurl at me," he said, "Or, er, you or any of the good people here...". Such moments of Attention Deficit Disorder are rare, however. Mr Blair is very good on the ringingly meaningless phrase.

So this is what elections do - they turn everyone into actors, into urgent, passionate people with issues on their mind, opinions to express, patriotism to espouse, mobile phones to bark clipped instructions into - and only once every five years to put the whole thing on stage.