On the road with Brian and Robin

While others doze, two of Westminster's big names wake up to the opportunities of high summer, reports Andy Beckett
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THE DROWSY middle of the summer holidays is not, you might think, the best time for politicians to tour the country. Voters are away, or in the back garden with the Test match on. They are not reading policy documents. Most politicians realise this and disappear abroad. One or two however, see the slack weeks as an opportunity: with nothing going on, anything will get them in the papers.

Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary, has been doing August roadshows for five years now, motivated by (he says) his children's Scottish school timetable, or (a colleague says) his need to get re-elected to Labour's national executive each autumn. Last year he steered a successful bandwagon against Post Office privatisation; this year he's selling Labour's European policy to the dozing nation. Last week however, he suddenly had competition from another Celt seeking English approval. Dr Brian Mawhinney, the new chairman of the Conservative Party, was despatched from Central Office to disrupt Labour's late-summer campaign with a little Ulster charm and roughness.

To this end, last Wednesday afternoon Dr Mawhinney (he likes to use the title) visited a large blue box on the outskirts of Nottingham. The box was surrounded by landscaped dead grass and contained Howitt Printing, a local firm that produces pounds 40 million worth of leaflets a year for successful direct mail companies and not-so-successful Conservative by-election campaigns. Patrick Howitt, the owner, and president of Nottingham Conservatives, waited for his visitor in a blue blazer and a state of florid anticipation. Mawhinney was late; "He's on a very short fuse," explained Howitt ominously. In the littered estate across the street three boys threw a football at each other under a blinding white sky and a sign forbidding ball games.

Mawhinney arrived in shirtsleeves. His skin was olive, not workaholic white, and he strode up the path to the box with a little bounce, leaving his entourage (a polka-dotted Party lady and his huge, moustached agent) to look after the official Rover, which was red. Mawhinney was feeling good: the day before, he had "exposed" the "loony left" activities of the Labour council in Walsall; this morning the story was on every broadsheet front page. Up in the Howitt boardroom for an opening press conference, he quickly forgot the company and remembered his bullseye: "I've never held a meeting before that has caused an entire council to be suspended an hour later."

Reporters wrote this down. Mawhinney raised his bushy eyebrows, flashed his eyes, and gave them more of the same in amused Belfast tones, rich enough to charm but never thick enough to mistake for Ian Paisley's. New Labour was a sham. Dozens of Labour councils were loony. Nottingham's Labour council was loony. Nottingham? A local journalist paused: had Dr Mawhinney come to the city to insult it? Mawhinney hesitated; "I am aligning myself with the people of Nottingham," he declared, confidence becoming bluster (Nottingham has only one Conservative councillor). Then he said something odd: "The only place reality exists is Labour Party politicians exercising power."

The next day, Robin Cook was in Leeds with his own red car. In the grand white and gold Civic Hall, behind the even grander Labour-controlled City Hall and layers of Labour-planted flowerbeds, he held his own press conference. Against a mid-grey backdrop his grey-green-suited entourage gave out shiny policy pamphlets about Europe, full of sober words about benefits for "British families". Cook, trim in small brogues and a buttoned-up suit, checked each journalist had got one like a schoolmaster handing out exam papers. A decade ago he was "still unconvinced that it was a good idea to join the Common Market"; now he patiently explained the benefits of regional cooperation. A road drill outside started sounding interesting.

Then, downstairs, a small crisis occurred. Angered by remarks Cook had reportedly made criticising Kashmiri independence, local Kashmiri leaders had arrived, demanding a meeting. Cook's eyes bulged a little defensively; he conferred with his grey-green suits. "I do not propose to get involved in any unscripted remarks on Kashmir," he said, flat as an MOD spokesman. Abandoning his backdrop and pamphlets and schedule for the day, Cook went down the municipal stairs in short, punching strides. Encountering a young Kashmiri man in trainers and a tennis shirt, he flared: "Get the cameras out. Then I'll go in and discuss it." The meeting room door was firmly shut.

An hour and a long phonecall to party headquarters later, Cook was calm again; his "very positive" meeting was over. He was sitting on a brown sofa with a mug of coffee in a New Labour kind of location: a converted warehouse in central Leeds, housing New Working Women, a small company that uses city council and European funds to train unemployed women to start their own businesses. The walls were primary colours, the pamphlets were by Anita Roddick and the co-directors and city councillors were clustered round Cook in a non-hierarchical circle.

They lectured him about funding difficulties, without deference; he grilled them about the company's success rate (two-thirds start businesses; two- thirds of those survive; burglaries of the premises are frequent). Cook criticised the Government for its attachment to "the old nation state level" as if it were a naughty child, and adult, casually-dressed assent rippled round the circle.

Mawhinney's factory visit had been rather more feudal. After the press conference, the directors were introduced as "the chap who keeps the score sheets". Then he left the boardroom with its reassuringly conservative antiques and oil paintings of bosses, rushed down the corridor, his agent and polka-dot lady trailing again, to burst - briefly - on to the shop floor. Presses roared; workers posed, uneasily; the manager explained things, inaudibly; and Mawhinney, cuffs rolled up like a Greek tycoon in a nightclub, furrowed his brow, held his tie, and peered into dangerous machinery while photographers dodged flywheels . Fortunately for Central Office, the woman in the French Impressions 95 calendar on the wall nearby never got into shot.

In 15 minutes it was over. Mawhinney strode back to his car, promising more such expeditions "around the country in the coming days", squeezed in beside his agent, and drove off. Then they came back - he had forgotten his bag. They left again; no members of the public saw them, just as none had seen them arrive. On the way out this time they passed a sign announcing that the owner of the land on which Howitt's Tory factory stood was Nottingham City Council.