Election '97: Fox, rhino and headless chicken - now the campaign is getting really serious

Steve Boggan
Thursday 03 April 1997 23:02

"I'm here to raise the level of debate," said the plastic rhinoceros. "So far today, the whole thing has just been full of people dressed up as animals."

In some respects, sadly, the rhinoceros was right. It was to have been Tony Blair's big day - the launch of Labour's manifesto, the day the radical moderate sold new Labour to Britain.

Instead, it became dominated by a farcical chicken run involving two chickens, two bears, a fox and the big rhino - which started in London and ended 400 miles away in Scotland.

That was when the chicken - an invention of the Conservative Party to highlight its claim that Mr Blair is afraid of a television debate - had its head pulled off by Freddie the Fox, a Mirror man in a fluffy costume.

All day, Labour spin doctors tried as hard to turn media attention from the animals as the Tories had begged to have sleaze removed from the agenda. But, in some ways, they were to blame.

The menagerie had its roots in the Tories' claims that Mr Blair was chicken - something he denies. To ram home the party's point, senior Tories dressed non-voter Noel Flanagan, 39, an out-of-work musician, in a chicken costume and requested passes for him to attend Labour events.

To their surprise, Labour's top spin doctor, Alastair Campbell granted the passes, expecting to be able to upstage the Tories at some point.

Trouble began, however, when the Tory chicken was unveiled near the Commons. For, laying in wait was a large headless chicken hired by the Mirror. Inevitably, a fight ensued, ending only when Alex Aiken, the Conservative chief press officer, wrestled the headless bird to the ground.

An hour later, the fowl failed to turn up for the unveiling of Labour's manifesto at the Institute of Civil Engineers in Westminster - it had, apparently filled in its application form incorrectly - but two bears were there instead. "We're from the Bear Alliance," said one. "We're holding picnics for MPs outside Parliament," said the other. "But we only want to discuss the bare issues."

Within minutes, they were joined by the Mirror's fox and the rhino, apparently hired by the London Evening Standard's "Londoners Diary".

But by then the Tory chicken was in a taxi bound for Heathrow airport and a rendezvous with Mr Blair in Stirling - the constituency of Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland - later in the day. It got within yards of Mr Blair but was no match for Freddie the Fox. "I had him for dinner, just as Tony Blair will have the Tories for dinner" said Freddy.

Quick as a flash, Labour spin doctors had invited the Tory chicken for dinner with the Labour leader.

In a letter aimed at Conservative Central Office, they wrote: "We understand that you might want to ask Brian Mawhinney for permission, but we're sure he'll want to avoid headlines that say: 'Chicken Chicken ducks out of dinner with Tony'."

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