A campaign that just can't get started

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The Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, got the Prime Minister's name wrong yesterday, when he was interviewed on the BBC Today programme about Tim Smith's resignation.

Heseltine: "What John Smith... err ... err ..."

John Humphrys: John Major.

Heseltine: "John Major - what John Major was talking about ... " It was a slip which spoke volumes for a Tory campaign which is having difficulties getting started.

With the Tories in dire trouble, Mr Major was in Peterborough with his friend and neighbour Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman, to open a village hall.

So far, it has been a quiet campaign which appears detached from the rough and tumble of the fight being waged by Central Office.

Earlier this week, Mr Major visited a grant maintained school in Birmingham to coincide with a press conference in London by Gillian Shephard to raise education up the agenda.

Some of those on the Major tour were unaware that Mr Heseltine and Mr Mawhinney at Central Office had changed the attack to the unions. Mr Major went on with his visit, chatting to sixth formers, but it was overshadowed by the union issue in the next day's press.

On Wednesday, after the IRA bomb attacks at Wilmslow, Cheshire, Mr Major attacked IRA-Sinn Fein in an interview at Heathrow, but refused appeals for interviews on his day out to Bradford, Halifax and Huddersfield, which became a day-long photo-opportunity.

Mr Major posed with his wife, Norma, at the national museum of photography, film and television in Bradford. He posed for more pictures in the headquarters of the Halifax Building Society. He posed on the field at the Huddersfield FC and refused to kick a football, explaining to photographers: "If you had my knees, you wouldn't." He still suffers from a car accident he had in Africa before he became an MP.

Back in London, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, attacked Labour after the Wilmslow bombing for its failure to support the Government's anti- terrorist legislation.

Mr Major remained mute on his tour until an off-the-cuff pep talk to party workers at the Huddersfield ground, where he urged them to show the "compassionate" side of the Conservative Party in the election.

The minders accompanying Mr Major's tour say it is early days. The battle bus will officially roll next week, with the launch of the Tory manifesto. It may be then that we will see a different John Major. So far, it has been a charm offensive, to show his compassionate side.

It is an undemonstrative campaign. He is a patter; he pats the heads of children but he does not kiss them. "He doesn't kiss babies," said one of the Major team, as he toured a shopping centre in Cornwall.

He remains the Tories' chief weapon against New Labour's appeal, and it may still work, as it did in 1992. The anecdotal evidence on the road with the Major campaign suggests there are still many "don't knows".

The anger bordering on hatred against the Tories in the recession has gone. Mr Major is greeted with warmth wherever he goes. There is no hyperbole on the highway with Mr Major. When he announced that Britain was "booming", he added: "but in a reasonable way". All that may change next week.