Election '97: Swashbuckling Goldsmith lands in port

Adulation and tricky questions marked the Referendum Party campaign launch
Sir James Goldsmith, billionaire financier and ruler of the Referendum Party, rallied his common touch as he teamed up with Cornish fishermen to kick off his election campaign yesterday.

He chose as his launchpad Newlyn harbour, a fertile battleground for his "Rule Britannia Not Brussels" message.

Although he trod a cautious path through the media pack swarming at his feet, by the time he reached the Chain Locker pub in Falmouth harbour, he was well into his stride with his man-of-the-people manner. Here was no ordinary politician. He didn't just shake hands, he hugged, kissed, and almost bowled over an 85-year-old woman in a turquoise bonnet.

Most of his supporters seemed to be in their eighties. Dr Stanley Gilson, 82, a lifelong Conservative, had come along out of a sense of duty. "I think it's the most serious situation we've experienced since the last war," he said. "I was running a blood transfusion service with the 8th Army and I saw many of our fine people killed. I feel a duty for us to stand our ground because we are going into a dictatorship in Europe. A political dictatorship. Hitler would have given his right arm for this."

Dr Gilson was not the only one to liken Sir James to Winston Churchill. "I think he's a great man," he said. "He's the man for the hour. Just as Mr Churchill rallied us in 1939, so Sir James is rallying us against political dictatorship."

After half a pint of Caffreys and a plate of lemon sole, Sir James emerged from the darkened pub with renewed vigour. "This country will be turned into no more than a province," he said. "To use Tony Blair's words, Westminster will be no more than a parish council."

Sir James urged people to vote regardless of whether the candidate would win because it would give "an indication to the Government that never again will we allow ourselves to be lied to, and have such a debate totally thwarted so that we don't know what is happening".

The audience loved it. "Tell you what," muttered one. "It's about time a man like him became prime minister."

"Pure Churchill," another agreed. They clamoured to congratulate him. "God help you," said one. "Thank you for being prepared to put your money behind something you believe in." Someone suggested 20 minutes of Sir James on television would be "worth a fortune".

But it is not power - or money for that matter - Sir James was after. "I'm far too old to want power," he told one sceptical journalist. Rather, he wanted "to let the people decide".

"A vote for the Referendum Party is not a vote for us. It's not a vote for any of the prospective parliamentary candidates. It's a vote for yourself, and others like you, to be able to get the right to decide ... otherwise, you deserve to be a slave to the bureaucrats in Brussels and long may you remain that way."

To some degree, Sir James felt he had already succeeded. "We now see a new John Major and a new Tony Blair," he said. "For how long?" shouted a member of the public, at which point Sir James reached for a piece of impromptu humour.

"They change daily. It's lovely," he said.

Sir James did not however, take kindly to criticism. "Can I ask you?" ventured an elderly man, catching him before he was whisked away in a black Ford Granada. "I'm not being rude, but when you were an MEP, you never supported Cornish fishermen."

He immediately felt the full weight of Sir James come down on him. "That's not true. The Liberal Democrat MEP told me that this morning ... he's a liar. Tell him from me. If he doesn't believe me, let him sue."