Perfect take-off for Conservative campaign

Activists keep their feet on the ground, writes Colin Brown
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The Independent Online
John Major yesterday used virtual reality to land a pounds 10m flight simulator at Luton airport at the start of his nationwide tour aimed at raising morale in the Conservative Party.

The machine was the ideal vehicle for political leaders suffering from mid-term blues and in need of something to revive the party.

It allows prime ministers to perform the perfect take-off, circle the world and land gently with no threat of turbulence, hazards and any fear of crashing to earth with a bump.

Emerging from the Britannia Airways crew trainer after landing at Luton, Gatwick and Salzburg, Mr Major said: "Norma would have enjoyed the experience."

There had been plans for Mr Major to land at Hong Kong in virtual reality which even experienced pilots regard as challenging, but the flight crew took the controls to avoid any risk of Mr Major coming to grief.

After a perfect landing, Mr Major was brought back to reality. Out in the rain, he was asked how he was going to lift party morale. The Prime Minister made it clear he was going to the country in search of a big idea. The answer could be to give Conservative associations their own simulators.

Mike Flint, vice-chairman of Luton North Tories, dismissed as unrealistic a plan by Michael Trend, the newly appointed deputy chairman of the party, to revive the Conservatives with new young teams of activists.

"It will be difficult for him to get those sort of shock troops," he said.

Mr Major met businessmen and 200 constituents from six seats in the area to hear at first hand what life is like for Tories on the ground. David Collins, vice-chairman of Luton South Conservatives, complained about the cuts in mortgage tax relief. "It was a Conservative policy held by Mrs Thatcher and should have been kept."

Eric Manley, president of Luton South Conservatives, said: "It is no good saying Tony Blair is a bit of an idiot. We want positive action from the Government."

Tory central office officials chose as the setting for the Prime Minister's visit to the grass roots Bedlow Manor, a sprawling hotel and country club near Bedford, where even the golf carts are make-believe Rolls-Royces. It seemed a long way from the reality of this year's riots in Luton, but these were the true blue Tories Mr Major needs to enthuse to win the next election. But Mr Flint was still wondering "Where is the beef?"

Nicki Attenborough, a Bedford Tory activist, said: "We asked him to restore the married man's allowance, support the hard worker and support the home- owners - they are the people who have been hit."

In Luton, they do not like kilos and litres replacing pounds and gallons and several Conservatives called on Mr Major to resist any further encroachment by Brussels.

The one message that struck a chord was an attack by Mr Major on Labour. "Taxes at the moment may be bloody awful - excuse my French - but they would be a darn sight worse under Labour," he said.

Then he stepped into the prime ministerial Daimler and swept away in the rain.