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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 December, 2004, 12:42 GMT
Last stop for the battle bus?
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News political reporter

One of Britain's best-known political institutions could be about to bite the dust.

Margret Thatcher
Mrs Thatcher takes the wheel
Labour general election supremo Alan Milburn has said he wants to ditch stale old ideas and run a more spontaneous, informal campaign.

He wants Tony Blair to meet "real people".

And you don't do that by stuffing an executive coach full of Westminster hacks and descending on the nearest marginal seat for a stage-managed photo opportunity.

So could this finally be the end of that venerable symbol of general elections past, the leader's battle bus? And was it really such a bad idea in the first place?

'Disaster'

Before the battle bus arrived in the late 1970s, reporters had to follow party leaders around the country by car.

The idea of herding them all together on an air-conditioned luxury coach decked out in party colours must have seemed like a stroke of genius.

Micheal Foot
Michael Foot gets back to basics
The hacks got access to the party leaders - and the party got some measure of control over the coverage.

But it rarely worked out that way in practice.

The BBC's chief political correspondent, Mark Mardell, was on one of the first battle buses in 1983, with Liberal/SDP Alliance leader David Owen.

"It was an absolute disaster," he recalls.

Mischief

The hacks on one bus would ask David Steel something and then feed the answer to the reporters on the other bus.

"David Owen would say that's a ridiculous, stupid idea.

John Prescott
Your carriage awaits, Mr Prescott
"And then we would say, well it came from David Steel and so we'd have our happy little headlines about huge splits in the alliance," recalls Mr Mardell with glee.

There is something about a coach trip that lends itself to mischief.

Tales of practical jokes and high jinks abound - and, of course, no bus trip would be complete without a singsong.

Whenever boredom began to set in on Neil Kinnock's bus, right wing hacks reportedly cheered themselves up with a chorus of "who do you think you are kidding Mr Kinnock...."

Battle plane

The Labour leader, normally sat a few rows further forward, failed to see the funny side, particularly when the journos reached their favourite line "we are the boys who will stop your little game..."

"He must have heard us, but he never turned round or reacted" said one reporter who witnessed the Kinnock-bating.

By 1992 it wasn't enough to be seen on a bus.

To really create a sense of being on the move, going places and, indeed, achieving lift off, the must-have political accessory was a battle plane.

The only problem for Labour was the Kinnock plane, dubbed Red Rose 1, failed to achieve lift off.

Soapbox

It was left stranded on the tarmac at Heathrow, leaving the hacks kicking their heels in the VIP lounge.

"The excuse they gave was a flat battery. You can imagine the headlines the next day," said one reporter who was on board.

Cherie and Tony Blair
Does he want to get back on the bus?
One reporter then had the bright idea of asking the pilot if he voted Labour. He didn't of course.

You can imagine the headlines the next day.

By this point it was clear that the battle bus had outlived its usefulness as a source of genuine political stories.

With Mr Kinnock being routinely "monstered" by the tabloids and John Major taking to his soapbox, the campaign had become a major part of the story.

'Grip-and-grin'

Bored senseless by interminable visits to factories and hospitals, the bus-bound hacks began to turn their eye to what their colleagues were up to.

Covering the coverage often generated more interest than whatever stage-managed "grip-and-grin" photo opportunity had been set up by the party press officers.

Needless to say this did not go down well with some battle bus veterans.

Our man on the Labour charabang recalls one TV reporter being "roughed up" after filing a report on the behaviour of his print colleagues.

The party minders were also restricting access to the leaders.

"By 1992 control had become total. By 1997 the buses were pointless," says our man in row N.

'Revving up'

One Labour jaunt from 1992 even turned into a mystery tour after party officials refused to reveal the buses' destination.

Margaret Thatcher and John Major
Mr Major makes a pit stop in 1992
"News editors were screaming down the phone 'look out of the window for road signs', but we couldn't see anything because the windows were covered in Labour posters."

That year also saw a first, of sorts, when journalist Will Self was caught taking drugs on John Major's plane.

But perhaps reports of the battle bus's death have been exaggerated.

The Liberal Democrats say they plan to use one in the next election campaign. It plays to leader Charles Kennedy's strengths, according to the party's campaigns supremo Chris Rennard.

Tory leader Michael Howard says he is undecided.

And the one man for whom the battle bus could have been created - who was born to stand at the front organising a whip round for the driver - is not going to give up without a fight.

"My battle bus is revving up," John Prescott told the Today programme on Wedenesday.

All aboard...




SEE ALSO:
Lib Dems promise 'major gains'
21 Nov 04 |  Politics
Howard's wizard of Oz
16 Nov 04 |  Politics
Campbell returns to election team
19 Dec 04 |  Politics
Labour battle plan 'hides Blair'
21 Dec 04 |  Politics
I'm running election says Milburn
09 Sep 04 |  Politics



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