Major's soap box gets its first outing in campaign

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The Independent Online
John Major returned to the soap-box yesterday to launch his election fight-back in a near-riot. His visit to Luton, scene of his soap-box revival in the 1992 campaign, showed he has lost none of the street-fighting spirit. Surrounded by policemen, Mr Major said he was taking his message over the heads of the commentators to the people to win five more years. But, surrounded by a crowd largely made up of chanting students from Luton University, he was heckled with shouts of "You'll be on the dole, John".

An empty drinks can was thrown as the scrum, with the Prime Minister in the centre, careered along the high street, crushing all in front of it.

The soap-box was waiting for him in St George's Square, five years almost to the week after it helped rescue a lacklustre campaign. The street-fighting boy from Brixton appeared to be delighted with the prospect of mixing slogans with the protesters. Tory spin-doctors were also pleased they made the perfect backdrop for the tea- time news.

Pointing to a bedraggled bunch of students with a pink banner demanding higher grants, Mr Major said: "There they are - the left wing of the Labour Party shouting their mindless slogans."

The small box, made of plywood and held together with black tape, standing one foot high, is Mr Major's last hope of victory and will be in evidence across Britain for the next six weeks. "It is like a mascot. It's a symbol of his style of campaigning - the man amongst the people. That is the way he wants it," said a Tory aide.

After a hitch with a microphone, Mr Major told his audience: "The last time I came to Luton, we had a reception like this - three weeks later we won both Luton seats and the general election."

But after 10 minutes of the Prime Minister's rhetoric explaining the virtues of the British economy, some of the crowd filtered away, complaining: "I wish he'd stop wittering."

As a first outing, it showed the Prime Minister does not intend to give up without a fight, even though it failed to impress young first-time voters such as Andrew Wilkes, a student, who described the spectacle as "a waste of time".

Tory Central Office said Mr Major would "hit the ground running" but some shoppers thought they were witnessing a robbery. "I saw the helicopter and thought I would come and have a look. The last time I saw a helicopter someone had broken into my neighbour's," said one bemused shopper.

The evidence on the street suggests there are more `don't knows' than polls show. Barbara Adjei, a public-administration student, said: "I am still undecided. I am waiting for that TV debate. That is going to make a big difference."