MPs take a break before campaign

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The Prime Minister may be "hitting the ground running" with his election campaign, but some of his MPs are preparing to fight the elections on the beaches or the ski slopes until after the Easter break.

While John Major and Tony Blair are preparing to enter the second week of their election campaign, many voters will see no sign of their MPs in their constituencies.

At least one minister has told his constituency association he will taking a short break in the Alps. "You can see too much of your constituents," he has told his friends. Other favourite destinations for MPs over Easter are city breaks on the Eurostar train to Paris and - although it will not appeal to the Euro-sceptics - Brussels.

Others are preparing for a short holiday in Britain before getting down to the business of winning their seats. "I am going to my in-laws with my wife for a few days, and I will be reading lots of novels," said one ministerial aide.

The MPs fear the six-week campaign to polling day on 1 May - the longest this century - could backfire if they begin now. "It's like door-to-door selling. You don't want to talk yourself out of a sale. If we start too soon, it will turn off the voters," said a whip.

But many MPs are also worried about exceeding their allowance, of about pounds 7,500 for election expenses, before polling day. They fear they could be challenged by the minor parties, including Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party.

One MP said he was staying around Parliament next week, although the House will be in recess, to enable him to write letters on House of Commons notepaper to constituents who have signed petitions in the past. All the cost of the postage will be born by the taxpayer.

Once the MP starts campaigning, the cost of the postage would have to come out of his election expenses. "The moment I start campaigning, the clock starts ticking on our expenses. So I'm not starting until after Easter," he said.

Most MPs are holding back until 1 April before hitting the streets with campaign leaflets. The party manifestos will be published around 3 April, creating a lull in the phoney war next week. The only exception will be in the marginal seats where all the parties are already campaigning hard.

However, to avoid election expenses being triggered, they are campaigning under the cover of "constituency surveys" until their candidates are formally adopted and up and running after Easter. One MP said: "Providing we don't mention the name of the candidate, we won't incur election expenses."

Whitehall is also likely to be in limbo next week. Civil servants were told this week by Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, not to indulge in party political campaigning. They have been warned that from the moment Mr Major called the election, they have not to allow ministers to take any executive decisions which may bind the next government.

Sir Robin also briefed all the heads of the Whitehall press offices to reinforce the message. Although the wheels of Government are kept turning, ministers have stopped operating through the Whitehall machinery and will be making the most of Easter break.