Election '97: Major on course among real runners and riders

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The Independent Online
Only jockeys, fools and horses would normally have been at the Newmarket stables in a sharp east wind on a Friday afternoon. But this was day 25 of the general election campaign and John Major went on a walkabout among the racehorses accompanied by two coach-loads of reporters and film crews.

The aim was to draw attention to Labour's wobbles over the threat to privatise the Tote, chaired by Lord Wyatt - whose daughter, Petronella, a Daily Telegraph journalist was on hand to declare the star horse a less seasoned runner than Mr Major.

The Prime Minister, no great judge of horse flesh, and more at home at cricket grounds, met one of the Aga Khan's horses, trained by Luca Cumani at the Bedford stables, and said: "It's not a bad life, is it?" Perhaps he had noted they are allowed to sleep on shredded copies of yesterday's newspapers liberally sprinkled with manure.

The unreal life of a prime minister chasing the favourite in the race for 1 May began with a rowdy public meeting at Norwich where Neil Kinnock's former adviser, Charles Clarke, is defending an inherited Labour majority of 4,350.

Facing a hostile crowd, the Prime Minister said: "This election is starting to come alive. The more it becomes alive, the less the Labour Party people will be able to hide their leader."

A young seller of the Big Issue, heckled Mr Major about the homeless and was told that the Tories would tell Labour local councils to hand over their empty homes after a year to agencies who would fill them. "Put that in your Big Issue," he said.

One man shouted obscenities and was told by a police constable. "You can speak to him, but don't swear. Now that's fair, isn't it?" Zero tolerance for bad language had its immediate calming effect. The crowd changed its chant: "Get your soup and slippers, Major. You're boring."

Mr Major got back into the battle bus telling aides: "That was great." His aide said: "He feels this kind of campaigning - with the leader on the hustings - has not been seen for years."

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