Sssh, Major's just tiptoed into town

HE SIGNED himself in the hotel visitors' book as 'John Major, Downing Street, London SW1', for all the world as if his surprise at becoming Prime Minister has still not worn off.

Therein lies his blokeish charm, which endears him to a generation of Tory voters grown up since Lady Thatcher abolished deferential politics. But the 'bloke factor' will not be enough to save the Conservatives in the local elections on Thursday, particularly when his minders keep him under such tight control.

They were not exactly lining the streets of Bury, Greater Manchester, last Friday when he concluded his much-vaunted 'getting to meet the people' tour of England. Nobody knew he was there. Not the helpful lady in the tourist office. Not the borough's chief executive. And certainly not the voters.

A tiny, boxed item on page one of the Bury Times disclosed 'PM comes to town' but aroused no interest. The landlord of a rather fine Thwaites's pub thought it was an obituary. Quite a few acts have died in Bury. Party stalwarts denounced the news item as 'a security leak', and technically it was. John Major's movements are kept so secret that his occasional air of mystification probably means he doesn't know where he is himself.

If you knew where to be - Milltown Road, Radcliffe, a cul-de-sac lined with factories and smallholdings - you could certainly hear him coming. He arrived in a convoy of limousines with six motorcycle police outriders. By this time, the shirt-sleeved local sergeant glowing in the unaccustomed April heat, who joked 'John who?' to waiting reporters, had got his uniform jacket on.

Not everyone was so respectful. As the cavalcade sped past a paint factory, workers swapped imprecations and one shouted 'lying bastard', but not very loud. Why wasn't he visiting this factory? 'Because we don't want him,' said a fierce fellow. 'Tell you what, he can come here and we'll put him in the black shed for a couple of hours. He won't be so grey then.' It didn't seem the right time to inquire what sort of paint-spraying horrors lay in wait in the 'black shed'.

Mr Major was in Milltown Road to visit the Trumeter factory, a successful middle-size firm of the kind so beloved of Tory propagandists. It employs 120 workers, many of them women, and it makes pedometers. These are the one-wheeled contraptions with a long handle that surveyors wheel about, measuring road distances while trying not to look too silly. Naturally, the photographers wanted to take his picture trundling a pedometer.

Politicians are much less afraid of looking silly than surveyors, or Private Eye would long ago have had to put advertisements on its front cover. But on this occasion, we were told we could not watch the Prime Minister doing a wheelie. Management said the factory was too small to allow the media hordes - all 15 of them - to accompany his visit. Only one 'pool reporter' from a domestic news agency and another from Reuters could go in. And only one photographer.

The hacks and their snappers chargrilled gently on the pavement until Mr Major reappeared. Confronted by the BBC, he consented to evade a number of questions about the Government's policy on Europe, in particular the persistent stories that he had personally intervened to 'beef up' the party manifesto for the Euro-elections on 9 June.

The Prime Minister declared himself a 'Euro-realist', the latest buzz-word. He didn't say very much else, but what he did say was just sufficiently different in tone and content to what his party chairman, Sir Norman Fowler, had said, and to what his Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, was about to say, that the political correspondents back at Westminster had their story.

On the issue of the local council elections, which is what the whole exercise was supposed to be about, he was suitably reticent. He had talked to a candidate in Bury, who was 'very confident'. But he thought it 'unwise to make predictions, particularly in mid-term. Taking the electorate for granted is a very unwise thing to do.'

Mr Major then shook hands with a few women workers in the road and quipped 'that your favourite?' to a sheepish youth wearing a Jack Daniels T- shirt, and the cavalcade swept off. He never even saw the centre of the town, which sports a fine statue of Bury's most famous son, Robert Peel, his right hand extended in a show of generosity. He could have been anywhere north of Watford.

The entourage went for a slap-up private lunch with local business people at the Bolholt Hotel on the outskirts of town, followed by a closed meeting of about 100 candidates, councillors and activists from the neighbourhood. There was time for a couple of regional television interviews in the hotel's bridal suite, from which the four-poster bed had been removed to make room for the cameras. He signed the hotel register and announced an 'outstandingly good, excellent' meeting with the party faithful. A few hand-picked Conservatives were wheeled out to repeat the message.

What had it all achieved? Virtually nothing. He geed up the faithful, and wowed some of the women workers at Trumeter. 'One Labour lady said she will never wash her hand again because she thought he was so lovely,' said true-blue Eileen Downes.

But for most of the people of Bury, the visit never happened, except for a brief clip on local TV news and an item in the weekly paper, published the day after polling takes place. On his earlier forays to Basildon, Birmingham and Croydon, he was given a hard time by the tabloids, including the traditionally Tory Daily Mail. It was all a far cry from the glory days of the general election, when he stood on his soap box, glad- handing in provincial towns, even under pressure from hostile demonstrators.

Leading article, page 20

(Photograph omitted)

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