Tory message gets lost in Devon lanes

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John Major yesterday tried to draw a line under the controversy over the Downey report, but he found he could not get away from sleaze.

Having brushed aside questions about financial improprieties, he did a walkabout in South Street, Braunton, Devon and walked into a hardware shop with the name "Slees" over the door.

Party managers looked aghast when they spotted the error, and Mr Major quickly made his exit. Winners need luck and it appeared to have deserted Mr Major yesterday at the end of a determinedly upbeat tour.

A few paces before stepping into Frank Slee's shop, Mr Major had comforted nine-year-old Simon Murray, who complained about being knocked in the eye by one of the photographers covering the trip.

"Life is like that. Occasionally you take a knock, Simon, and then you bounce back," Mr Major said. The Prime Minister sought to bounce back from last week's setbacks by campaigning in Paddy Ashdown's back yard where there are a string of key marginals which the Tories are defending against the Liberal Democrats, including Exeter, Devon West and Torridge, the seat of Emma Nicholson who defected from the Tories to the Liberal Democrats.

"We are beginning to deal with the real issues. Last week we saw quite astonishing economic figures. Today we saw the balance of payments returning to equilibrium ... all the economic indicators are set extremely fair. I don't think you can drown that out throughout the whole campaign," Mr Major said.

There was little evidence of a swing back to the Tories around the Green Lanes shopping centre in Barnstaple, in the North Devon seat of Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat MP.

Janet Sanders, a housewife, said she had switched from Tory to Liberal at the last election and would be sticking with the Lib Dems again.

Liberal Democrat support was also holding firm at Braunton where Mr Major and his wife, Norma, had lunch at a fish and chip shop. Unlike Tony Blair, Mr Major looks at home in the chip shop. It suits his man-of-the-people image; he would never mistake mushy peas for avocado mousse.

North Devon is a traditional Liberal seat, which returned Jeremy Thorpe.Tory campaigners are hoping that the appeal of Tony Blair will help them unseat the Liberal Democrats and fight off the challenge in the West Country in seats where they came second last time.

Mr Major is a approaching the threat by lumping Mr Ashdown's party with Labour His message is that a vote for the Liberal Democrats may elect a Labour government but in this corner of the West Country it seemed more likely to encourage than dissuade the voters.