Major takes hope from day in Linekerland: Colin Brown followed the Prime Minister to Leicester on the first of the tours he is using to boost Tory support

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Indy Politics
JOHN MAJOR returned from Gary Lineker country convinced the economy is recovering, Conservative support is holding up, and he will still be Prime Minister after the next general election.

Like Mr Major, the ex-England forward is famous for his courtesy and his home town did not let the visitor down. As Mr Major left the offices of BBC Radio Leicester, he came face-to-face with the dole queue at the social security offices across the road.

Some of Leicester's unemployed cheered Mr Major when he went on an impromptu walk-about. An elderly woman grasped him by the hand and he joked with a tall black boy about his hairstyle. He signed autographs in cricket books, which well-wishers produced from thin air, and a couple of brickies shouted from a scaffold: 'Good on you, John.'

One of those signing on, Glynn Creed, 31, said he would go on supporting the Tories, in spite of losing his work as a self-employed landscape gardener last year to the recession. 'You get a lot of the loony lefties in this city especially on the city council. There is always work about if you look for it.'

The record shows Labour won all three seats in Leicester, and David Ashby - the 'two-men-in-a-bed' Tory MP - held on to the Leicestershire North West seat by only 979 votes in 1992.

Linekerland is clearly a different country. The Prime Minister's task is to convince the 'cynics', as Michael Portillo would describe them, that this is the real world, and the picture of Tory sex and financial sleaze at Westminster is the fantasy.

As Mr Major flew to Leicester by RAF helicopter on the first of his regional tours to bolster his leadership, the US President, Bill Clinton, tried to call him at Downing Street. The caller from the White House was told Mr Major was not available.

The Prime Minister was busy pressing the flesh with an invited audience of party workers in the Leicestershire Suite at the Holiday Inn. He breakfasted in the Oak Room with local businessmen. The message from both meetings was the same: economic recovery was real, and the Government needed to sharpen up its message.

After meeting Mr Major, Sue Tilley, who runs Classy Rags, a company making uniforms, said: 'He is quite charismatic. He has great personal charm.'

Ivor Vaughan, chairman of Rearsby Automotive, suppliers to Rover, Nissan and other car manufacturers, said: 'My message to him was to be clear what the Government's vision is. I heard Bernard Ingham, (Baroness Thatcher's Downing Street press secretary) a good old bruiser, on the radio and he got the message over - interest rates are coming down, inflation is down, the economy is growing. . .'

Mr Major put it differently. He told one of those on the dole queue that interest rates were at their lowest since 'you were a gleam in your father's eye'. It was not the sort of language Mr Ingham employed, but it went down well in Linekerland.

At Epic House, home of the local BBC radio station, Mr Major faced a polite phone-in show, with questions on the plight of dentists in the NHS, civil service jobs and small business lending rates. Rachel, from Leicester, who had been at his meeting for Tory supporters the night before, asked Mr Major to repeat the 'eloquent speech' he had made about all the help Britain was giving to the Muslims in Bosnia. Leicester has a large ethnic minority population, which will be crucial in the local elections.

Chris, of Nottingham, asked Mr Major whether, in view of all the scandals, he thought 'this degree of freedom of the press is a good idea'. Mr Major replied: 'I am not in favour of censoring the press. . .'

Some in Linekerland would have disagreed. They blamed the media for many of his troubles, but would deal sharply with the MPs who fail to uphold decent standards. One Tory constituency chairman, a farmer, said: 'I am a farmer and when one of my cows does this sort of thing, I send it straight to the knacker's yard, otherwise it pollutes the herd.'

As he spoke, Mr Major was visiting the greenfield site where the Triumph motorcycle is made and exported to Japan, like Mr Lineker.

(Photograph omitted)