So will Labour candidates put a picture of a grinning Tony Blair on their leaflets?

I wonder if visits by the PM won't do more harm than good, given the way voters have fallen out of love with him


So the Prime Minister has announced that he is back with us. He concluded Labour's spring conference with a humble appeal to voters. But before arriving in Gateshead he made his whistle-stop helicopter tour of four marginal Labour-held constituencies during which he unveiled the vacuous new pledges that launched his campaign for a third term. It will be interesting to see whether the outcome of his visits to Battersea, Kettering, Warwick and Leamington and Shipley - all Tory seats until 1997 - make any difference on polling day.

It used to be assumed that the party leaders' visits to individual constituencies had a beneficial effect for the local candidates, but I wonder, given the way in which the voters appear to have fallen out of love with the Prime Minister, whether future such visits won't do more harm than good. Throughout the coming weeks, all the top personalities from the main parties will be press-ganged by their minders into embarrassing cheesy photocalls in marginal constituencies.

My own experiences suggest that much of this activity is misdirected and a waste of time. Of course, in theory, it should be a wonderful prospect to welcome a "big noise" to the local patch, but the point of winning over sceptical voters is usually defeated by the desire to avoid embarrassing confrontations should too many "real people" get too close. The local press can also be less compliant and less intimidated by big names than is sometimes assumed by party managers. Interviews need to be tightly controlled in case a well-briefed young journalist entraps the big fish into failing to be aware of the local hot issue.

Occasionally it can work well. Margaret Thatcher came to support me in Scunthorpe prior to the 1979 election and I was rewarded with the Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph headline "Iron Lady comes to Steel Town". But the rows that ensued over who got to meet her during the private lunch at the Conservative Club meant that the bruised egos of the Tory faithful who had to be excluded threatened to negate any new voters the visit may have secured.

But my fondest memory of where it can all go wrong goes back to the 1983 general election when the former Foreign Secretary, Francis Pym, visited the area shortly after he had made the unwise, but prophetic, statement - in response to the huge Tory opinion poll lead - that too large a parliamentary majority was a bad thing for democracy. "Presumably, Mr Pym, you are visiting this constituency to advise electors to vote Labour", suggested an astute trouble-making local hack.

Michael Heseltine, an outstanding example of the experienced stump politician, would visit so many constituencies during the course of a single day that he would occasionally have a memory blank before commending the name of the prospective candidate at a local meeting.

The two enduring images of the 2001 election were John Prescott's punch in Wales and Mr Blair's confrontation with Sharon Storer outside a Birmingham hospital. Mr Prescott suffered no lasting damage but Ms Storer certainly sowed the seeds of doubt in the public mind that health policy delivery had matched government rhetoric. Never have I seen Blair quite so discomforted as by that encounter.

This time I suspect that no "real" voter with an axe to grind will be allowed anywhere near the Prime Minister. In any event, this will be the first election since 11 September 2001 where security considerations can legitimately be used as cover against enemy action from ungrateful voters.

Such visits do, of course, create interest from the local media. In 1997 my Cleethorpes constituency was in the front-line of Labour's assault and hardly a day went by during the preceding months when an opposition Labour front-bencher was not skulking around the shopping centre, riding a donkey on the sea front or photographed eating fish and chips on the pier. John Prescott proved particularly adept at beach cricket and was generally credited with energising the local Labour activists to go the extra mile to get rid of me.

Mr Prescott, however, is a crowd drawer - if not always a crowd pleaser - precisely because he is an unscripted politician. This quality did of course cause some consternation during the 2001 North Wales egg-throwing incident but most voters nationwide did not take offence. Indeed, these unscripted events can often be the making of a good personal campaign, and Mr Prescott is right to continue with his usual bus tour which still seems likely to bring out the crowds.

Judging from the current personal poll ratings of Mr Blair, however, I am not sure that he will now prove to be quite the asset to his party in individual constituencies in this campaign as he has done in the past. If he really has got the message from the voters that he has not been listening and has been perceived as arrogant, he might consider the old-fashioned approach and hold meetings open to all comers and try his luck in confrontations with the disaffected. Sadly such events, insofar as they are still held, are invariably "all ticket" affairs laid on for the benefit of television and loyal party activists.

Michael Howard will also, no doubt, be charging around the country, either by battle bus or helicopter, and it will be interesting to see whether he is able to shake off his old image as he glad-hands suspicious voters. He cut an amusing figure last week kitted out as a policeman accompanying officers on a patrol. Dressing up in hard hats, white coats and health and safety goggles is part and parcel of the senior politician on the stump.

During the 2001 campaign, William Hague spent a large part of his time addressing committed party workers in empty car parks largely for the benefit of Sky News and BBC News 24. But scarred by the baseball cap fiasco at Notting Hill in 1997, he did at least take care not to give any similar hostages to fortune during the election stump.

Mr Howard may find that he bears much of the burden of national campaigning himself. Oliver Letwin, his shadow Chancellor, and David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, will presumably make brief dashes to London for press conferences, but will be tied down in their local patches hoping to see off the threat posed by the Liberal Democrats. No doubt Charles Kennedy will make unnerving prominent visits to both these constituencies. Mr Kennedy already knows the routine from his 2001 campaign, and usually shines on campaign walkabouts.

But I know of one Tory candidate, attempting to unseat a Lib Dem, who is determined that no big cheese should come anywhere near his campaign. He believes they're more likely to lose him votes. He intends to launch his own posters, and wants voters to realise that they are voting for him and not Mr Howard. This is, of course, the constitutional position, and I suspect there will also be many Labour MPs who will leave grinning pictures of Tony Blair off their election addresses.

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