Election `97: Tories pin their hopes on undecided

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John Major last night said he was counting on the "don't knows" to rescue the Tories from defeat on polling day.

The Prime Minister went angling for the floating voter at a 300-year- old pub on the River Hamble, Southampton, and claimed the don't knows were Conservatives who would "come home" on 1 May.

"I think the don't knows are beginning to harden up," said Mr Major. "There are an awful lot of people out there who have not committed themselves."

The don't knows were the reason Mr Major remains optimistic, in the face of all the opinion-poll evidence, that the Tories still have a chance. One poll this week showing a lead of more than 20 points for Labour excluded 14 per cent of don't knows. Mr Major may take some scraps of comfort from the don't knows, but at the moment they are likely to make the difference merely between defeat and disaster.

"If the don't knows were going to vote Labour they wouldn't be don't knows. They would have made up their minds a long time ago.

"The don't knows are Conservatives who are waiting for the right reasons to come home. Our manifesto gives them the reason. I expect they will need a bit of wooing but I expect and hope they will come home and we will win this election," he said.

Declaring the opinion polls "a million miles adrift", Mr Major did a walkabout in the yachting haven at Hamble, in the Eastleigh constituency the Tories lost in a by-election to the Liberal Democrats, and met local anglers worried about Labour's ban on cruel sports.

There was abundant evidence wherever he went of the don't knows. At Southampton Airport Ruth Quigley, 49, said she and her 81-year-old mother, who shares the same birthday as Mr Major, were undecided, even though her mother had been a confirmed Major fan since he had sent her a birthday card from Downing Street. "I have so many friends saying the same thing," she said. "Even my mother, who is an ardent John Major fan, is undecided."

The reasons include insecurity about unemployment. "When you go to the job shop, you are treated like a national insurance number. I would like to be given personalised appointments. People like me are not too old at 49 but we don't want to be stuck on government training courses with 19-year-old kids."

n An official of Neil Hamilton's Tatton constituency association in Cheshire has called for a secret ballot on Tuesday for the Conservative MP's readoption. Mr Hamilton, who is at the centre of allegations that he took cash for asking Parliamentary questions, has been under pressure to resign.

Last night the association's chairman, Councillor Alan Barnes, attacked its treasurer, Tony Martin, for making the suggestion and said his views were not shared by other officials.