The Secretary of State for Social Security denied John Major's allies had flushed him out of the Norman holiday home to which he had allegedly fled rather than march shoulder to shoulder with Tory Europhiles.
But his itinerary yesterday did not suggest Mr Lilley had been held back by Central Office as a terror weapon to be unleashed in marginal seats. This tour of duty looked, at best, a punishment fatigue, at worst suicidal. They ordered him to four safe Labour European constituencies in Yorkshire, including two of the three safest in Britain.
'In fact, we didn't actually ask for him,' one local party official confided. 'They phoned up and said 'Do you want Peter Lilley for a day?' and we said 'Aye, alright then, send him up here and we'll walk him round a bit'.'
By noon, Mr Lilley was in open, hostile country - Huddersfield town centre. Christina Adamson, the local candidate, did a swift reconnoitre of John William Street. It looked safe enough. 'It's lunchtime and half-day closing,' she explained. 'We have a knack of finding the right moments.' An old grunt would have known better.
A few straggling, loyal Tories greeted Mr Lilley hurriedly, then moved swiftly for cover. Two pensioners promptly swooped from out of the sun and called Mr Major 'a liar and a cheat'.
Mr Lilley looked suitably wounded. Sensing his vulnerability, a time-served coach-builder set a trap. 'I've had my doubts about Europe because I thought we were better off being independent,' he said. This was a skilled working-class voter sounding Eurosceptical. Mr Lilley took a fateful, tell-me- more step forward.
The voter was a Tory sceptic in Eurosceptic camouflage and, even worse, one of those capable of prefixing questions with long monologues. He was in favour of the Social Chapter. He had lost his job as a skilled coach-builder. He was worth pounds 8 an hour, being a skilled man, like. Down at the labour exchange, they had the nerve to tell him, a skilled man, he was being greedy expecting more than pounds 3.60. And then they signed him off.
A small, slim woman beamed at the Cabinet minister. She was a Tory local councillor and had been in the public gallery when he made his maiden Commons speech. Mr Lilley was touched. Memories of the old days flooded back. He had spoken in that debate of the benefits to farmers of EEC membership. And he had campaigned to stay in Europe during the referendum - had met his wife then, in fact, when she was secretary of a local Keep Britain In group.
It was nonsense to suggest he was a late arrival to the campaign. He had opened it in Wales, was a veteran of the Bournemouth and Tunbridge Wells fronts, and supported wholeheartedly Mr Major's European policies. He had been to Normandy to work privately on departmental matters, he said.
Then he was off on a mission to embolden the Tories of Doncaster and Sheffield, 'all three of them' as the party man said behind his hand. Who wouldn't rather be in Normandy?
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