Election '97 : Englishness and charm win friends in the North

Major's campaign takes on an Alice in Wonderland quality, writes Peter Popham
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The Independent Online
A general election campaign is the moment when a nation confronts its rulers. But on a slow Thursday in the middle of Britain's general election campaign in 1997, you can range across huge tracts of land, eat up miles of video-tape, soak up words and sights, and return to the capital very little the wiser. You can come out and up and down and back in a bubble of unreality.

The mood takes grip at the regular morning press conference. Smith Square, home of Tory headquarters, is a genteel Georgian vacuum hard by Westminster. Journalists bound for the press conference do not walk in the front door but are directed along a white-painted wooden tunnel into the security zone, a horizontal rabbit hole that disgorges into Tory wonderland.

In the windowless press conference chamber in front of a projected sign reading "You Can't Trust Labour on Europe", John Major resumes yesterday's suicide assault on his own party. But the fine fury of his performance at Wednesday's press conference has dissipated. In its place is the disdain and pique of the old hand staring at the prospect of being turfed out by rash youth. Chirac and Kohl, he said, "would eat Tony Blair for breakfast and digest him for lunch."

Outside in the otherwise empty square, three man-sized teddy-bears demonstrate inscrutibly, holding placards which read "Vote for a fleas-free Britain". Bill Morris of the TGWU is there, trying to deliver an over-complicated message on pensions, revolving around Major's failure to become a bus conductor. We board the bus. Today we are flying to Manchester to visit a discount shopping centre at Ellesmere Port, a mile or two down the road from Neil Hamilton's constituency of Tatton. The centre turns out to be a circle of neo-Tudor toytown structures topped by weathercocks embowering a huge car-park. The toytown structures are occupied by "designer outlets" such as Nike, Gap, etc. Why are we here? The constituency (notional Labour majority over 3,000) must look pretty unassailable, even through John Major's eyes. All that is to be said is that business is booming, consumers are flocking and the gently curving plan makes it a handy spot for a walkabout. Said walkabout commences. It's a strange animal crawling round the shopping centre, part rugby scrum, part compacted ballroom dance, with small dismembered lap-dog microphones bobbing above while the Tory volunteers in baby-blue sweatshirts, on their haunches, press the photographers forward to give the Prime Minister breathing space.

Unlike Tony Blair's walkabout, there is a relaxed, unstructured mood, with no attempt to filter out unruly elements. Any voters bursting with anti-Tory indignation would have little difficulty in getting close enough to give John Major the Jerry Hayes treatment. But instead, he is shrouded in a zone of quietness and courtesy; his touch, his artless smile, seem to have an anaesthetic effect. "You've got the right colour tie on, anyway," says one Labour supporter (Major's tie is red) and that's about as rude as it gets. This Prime Minister, as English as it is possible to be, extorts the same excruciating Englishness from all who cross his path.

We retire to the Cheshire Oaks Racquets Club for lunch, where membership is offered at the rate of pounds 3,400 per family. Then Major does another thing that Blair is not often allowed to do, what in the trade they call "a doorstep".

There is, in fact, no doorstep in sight, but the Prime Minister behaves as if he has just opened the door to a pack of hungry reporters and is magnanimous and affable enough to give them full and frank answers. We did Europe (again). We did IRA ceasefires. We did free votes on Europe. We got the benefit of John Major's view that, like the hero of Vice-Versa by F Anstey, Tony Blair is getting younger.

And that was Ellesmere Port, the North-West, designer shopping. At Hawarden on the way back, Mr Major was careful to shake the hands of all eight members of his local motorcycle escort. But that's the sort of man he is.