ELECTION '97 : Party buses head for highway battles

Major keeps soapbox in reserve on the road
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The Independent Online
Tony Blair beat John Major to the use of a new hydraulic "soapbox" when the battle of the leaders' buses moved into top gear.

The original soapbox, a battered packing case covered with black tape, which Mr Major used in the 1992 election and brought out again like a good-luck charm in Luton at the start of the 1997 campaign, has been superseded by a new platform incorporated in the side of the bus.

Mr Major will be able to emerge from a side opening door in the bus and step on to the platform, to enable him to rise above the crowd to make public speeches during the campaign tour. However, the old soapbox may be held in reserve, for a more flexible response on walkabouts.

The coach, which was used in the last general election campaign, was converted by Plaxton, a Sheffield coach firm, and is equipped with high- tech communications to keep the Prime Minister in contact with Downing Street, including a satellite telephone link, a wardrobe, lavatory, and kitchen at the back.

The Majors sit towards the back of the bus with the Prime Minister's press secretary, Sheila Gunn, his special adviser, Howell James, and Shirley Stotter, the campaign manager; and there is a television handy to keep an eye on the news.

At the front of the bus is anoffice with links to Conservative Party headquarters, including a fax for handling confidential data from Conservative Central Office, Apricot 660 mini tower computers with 32 Mb Ram - enough for the most sophisticated computer games, and printers for Mr Major's speeches.

The risk of terrorist attack has required the bus to be fitted with armour plating, to make it bomb and blastproof. It is also believed to be fitted with James Bond-style gadgets to counter electronic evesdropping. Specialist work was carried out by Image Intelligence of Cheltenham.

None of the high-tech kit was needed on Mr Major's first outing yesterday in the battle bus, to a B&Q store in Croydon, south London. Mr Major and his wife, Norma, relied on the old political standby, the handshake, as they toured the ceramic tiles, lawnmowers and the garden plants. One woman said to her husband: "I'll never wash my hand again" after a handshake from Norma.

"It's better than the Boxing Day sale," said one B&Q assistant, as hordes of media swept through the store, surrounding the Majors. Sales may not have improved however. They did not buy anything.

They found the Tory voters remaining solid in Croydon North, the fourth most Conservative marginal seat in the country. Michael Smithson, a local washing machine repair shop owner, said he would vote Conservative "whatever happens", but not all the shoppers were surprised to be meeting the Prime Minister. The Tory candidate's mother was also among the shoppers.

There was plenty of evidence that many have not made up their minds. They include John Camemzuli and his wife Margaret, who with their three children got Mr Major's signature. "We want to be more sure about the manifesto policies. We are not very happy about breaking promises on VAT on fuel and we'd like more spending on education."

That was the view of a B&Q worker who was undecided after the Prime Minister left. "He's not like he seems on the telly. On the telly he seems a wimp. But he's quite nice in the flesh." But by then, the Major battle bus was already rolling back to Downing Street.