Election '97: Major whirls around the country

PM's campaign trail takes in Grand National
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The Independent Online
As a day of election campaigning, even by modern standards, John Major's outing to the Grand National at Aintree must count as one of the maddest on record.

The Prime Minister went on a 1,200-mile round-trip to send a defiant message to the IRA by attending the Grand National after rearranging a day's campaigning in the north-west and the South of England.

It involved a flight to Manchester in a Boeing 737 loaned by British Midland and three flights in a flotilla of helicopters provided by Bristow's.

The day began when the Prime Minister flew to Manchester Airport from RAF Northolt to visit the Fairfield NHS Trust Hospital, Bury, to support two "one-nation" Tory MPs, David Sumberg and Alistair Burt, who are defending key marginal seats.

On the flight to Manchester, two photographers accompanying the election tour organised a pounds 1-a-head sweepstake for the National. Mr Major picked Magoni Beach, a 66-1 outsider.

From Bury, Mr Major and his wife, Norma, flew by helicopter from a nearby playing field to Andover, in Hampshire, around 300 miles, with two helicopters of press members following.

After landing on a football field, Mr Major visited an engineering company producing "overhead powerlines accessories" run by David Hearnshaw, a company chosen because he is opposed to the Social Chapter, which Tony Blair would sign.

The Prime Minister had been due to fly on to Kempton racecourse to tour a nearby school but diverted back north. As he climbed into the helicopter, a group of boys playing football chanted "There's only one Tony Blair".

After spending less than an hour on the ground in Hampshire, he set off for Aintree, a trip of a further 300 miles, to see the Grand National, thank the security services for their work over the weekend and to cheer on his horse.

Then it was back in the helicopter to complete his day's engagements in Cheltenham, visiting a local Tesco supermarket and clocking up another 300 miles in his eight hours.

Mr Major's day: 8.30am leaves CCO; 10.00am takes off by 737 from RAF Northolt; 11.00am arrives Manchester Airport; battle-bus to Bury; 11.15 tours hospital; 1.15 leaves Bury by helicopter; 2.30pm arrives Andover; 2.35pm visits factory; 3.02pm leaves factory; 3.23pm leaves Andover; 4.45 arrives Aintree.

The official theme for Day 15 of the campaign was billed on press releases as "British excellence at risk day". But the message the Tory strategists wanted to convey was of a man on the move, John Major as Action Man.

Before we left Smith Square, I spoke to Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman. He was dressed in slacks and a blazer, looking remarkably relaxed, although the polls are refusing to move. Even with three helicopters, the Major campaign has had trouble lifting off. Flashing a smile, which can put fear into enemies, Mr Mawhinney summed up the day by saying: "The medium is the message."

The party leadership wanted to get back on to the attack after being frustrated that Tony Blair's "wobbly weekend" had been pushed off the front pages by Martin Bell standing as an anti-sleaze candidate against Neil Hamilton in Tatton.Mr Major in Bury barely concealed his irritation. He had not, to his knowledge, even met Mr Bell, but BBC sources said he had given the reporter, a veteran of Bosnia, a list in his plane from Split to London and had invited him up front for a chat. Tory sources said the Prime Minister met many people and could not remember them all.