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banner Wednesday, 12 April, 2000, 15:54 GMT 16:54 UK
Vote for Frank, Frank, Frank, says Tony

On the Underground: Tony Blair and Frank Dobson
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

Well he has finally done it.

Tony Blair swallowed hard, took his courage in both hands - and went on the stump with the "underdog" London mayoral candidate Frank Dobson.

He ended weeks of speculation about claims he was unwilling to ally himself too closely with Mr Dobson and appeared alongside him in the splendid Glazier's Hall in south London - he even risked a Tube journey with him.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Blair lavished praise on his man, stating he was the candidate people could trust, who would work 24-hours-a-day for London and who was "serious".

"I have known Frank for 20 years. I know not just about his record in opposition and government but I know how much he cares passionately about London.

"He will stand up for it and he will stand up to the government if he has to," he insisted.

He didn't want to talk too much about Ken Livingstone, declaring people already knew his views about him full well.

But the implication of his remarks was that Mr Livingstone, still the runaway favourite, could not be trusted, would work mostly on promoting himself and was not a serious candidate.

Work with Ken

However, when pushed, he admitted he would work with Mr Livingstone if he was elected to the job and he even appeared to leave the door open to changes in the government's plans for the tube.
Independent mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone
Ken Livingstone: PM would work with him
He also correctly pointed out that, one minute Mr Dobson is being dismissed as his place man while the next he is being accused of failing to support him.

It was hardly a full-blown piece of campaigning, however, just a 25 minute press conference aimed at telling the media to stop concentrating on personalities, i.e. Ken Livingstone, and process, i.e. Labour's electoral college system which elected Mr Dobson over Mr Livingstone.

What Londoners needed to hear was details of the policies Mr Dobson was putting forward, he insisted.

And the two men concentrated on pointing out the huge differences between the three main contenders' plans for the London Underground.

Tory Steve Norris would privatise it, Ken Livingstone would issue bonds and land Londoners with the burden of financing improvements while Mr Dobson would use private investment to transform the system.

This all came against a backdrop which consisted of the signature "Frank" written over and over again.

It had a chilling echo of the scene in the horror film, The Shining, in which psychopath Jack Nicholson sits at his typewriter writing "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" over and over again. Spooky.

But they certainly got their message across with a powerful assault on rivals' policies on transport in the capital.

And Mr Blair insisted time and again that, once Londoners realised the mayor's job was a powerful one not just a ceremonial one, they would come around to Mr Dobson.

And then came the surprise - right up until the last minute, Labour spin doctors had been insisting there would be no "transport-related event" involving the two men.

They were clearly terrified that the prime minister would suffer a repeat of the humilliation of his last journey by underground when the woman commuter he sat next to persistently refused to respond to his attempts at engaging her in conversation.

Never before have spin doctors been un such a spin.

In the end they went for it and sent Mr Blair and Mr Dobson back to their offices by public transport. Once again, the commuters seemed less then bowled over by this attempt to engage with the ordinary folk - but at least they seemed to recognise the prime minister this time.

And it was all tightly controlled, to the point that one cynic wondered whether Millbank had actually hired a tube train full of Labour supporters specifically for the stunt.

And, at the end of the day, it may all be too little too late.

Mr Blair may be right in his claim that, once the campaign concnetrates on policies, voters will come around to Mr Dobson.

Mess ups

But Mr Dobson has a giant task ahead of him if he is to destroy Mr Livingstone's lead.

Even when "Red" Ken makes comments which manage to offend large groups of people or appear to underline his reputation as an extremist, his poll rating remains unassailable.

And, of course, Mr Dobson's campaign has suffered more than its fair share of mess ups.

The press conference was no different - if you believe the bumf handed out to the press, Mr Dobson has a fabulous tranport manifesto.

And the two men stood under a huge crystal chandelier which, bearing in mind the bad luck that has dogged the Dobbo campaign, was surely tempting the fates.

At the end of the day, the prime minister had done his bit - even if it had sometimes appeared a bit lukewarm - and given Mr Dobson his full public support.

Whether that helps or hinders Mr Dobson's campaign remains to be seen.

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