Portillo is holed up in the bunker as Blair finds the right range

The difference between the Conservative and Labour election machines was shown yesterday when Tony Blair spent more than two hours at a Wirral hospital while Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence, visited a private golf club at nearby Eastham.

Health has been identified as the voters' prime concern in Thursday's Wirral South by-election, and the local media swamped Mr Blair's visit to the Arrowe Park Hospital, just outside the constituency. Labour was giving them what they wanted.

Meanwhile, over in the Tory camp the candidate, Les Byrom, toured the offices of a cable communications company, accompanied by six party workers and a company photographer. Cabling has not yet registered as an election issue.

Mr Byrom later welcomed Mr Portillo to his beleaguered campaign and the Secretary of State spent an hour giving interviews to television and radio at Eastham golf club.

Mr Blair's visit, which included tours of hospital wards and departments, concluded with a lengthy private briefing session with hospital managers and staff and representatives.

At the end of his third visit to the constituency, the Labour leader said: "I don't know who Mr Portillo will be meeting in the golf club, but I think you will find in every part of this constituency there are people who were Conservative that are now coming over to the Labour Party. I think Mr Portillo will find that as well, and one of the reasons for that is the type of Conservatism Mr Portillo represents."

Mr Blair said that the one- nation conservatism represented by Sir Edward Heath was on the way out and that explained why a lot of people were switching to Labour.

But if yesterday's campaign showed up the difference between Labour and the Tory machines, it also illustrated the difference between a national press obsessed by the arrival of Cherie Booth, and what she was wearing (clothes) and a regional media that was covering health and other local concerns.

Explaining the decision to give the local media a special, preferential session with Mr Blair, one aide said there was another difference between local and national media - "people trust the local media".

With just two days to go to polling, today's campaign will be dominated by a visit from Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, who said three weeks ago that the Tories could expect a "kick" from the Wirral South voters. Labour will get a return visit from its deputy leader, John Prescott, and the Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown, will spend an hour at a local primary school.

Labour will conclude its campaign tomorrow night with an open public meeting - a rare event in modern electioneering.

Portillo in Hong Kong, page 10

Donald Macintyre, page 15

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