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Tuesday, 29 May, 2001, 16:14 GMT 17:14 UK
Travelling with the Tories
BBC correspondents following Mr Hague
BBC correspondents following Mr Hague
The election trail is now in its second week, and as William Hague continues to preach the Tory message all over the country, Laura Trevelyan and Tim Hirsch are still following his every move.

Tim Hirsch's diary, Friday 25 May

William Hague has been criticised for his decision not to hold daily press conferences in Westminster before setting off on his travels around the country.

Unlike the other party leaders, he does not regularly submit himself to a grilling from senior political journalists, choosing instead to go out and campaign in the "real world" rather than the Westminster village.

Usually, this makes life much easier for him, but today Mr Hague found that 5th form pupils at Fairfield Girls' School in Manchester were just as clued up on the issues of the election as members of the Parliamentary lobby.

"If you reduce taxes, would it come out of schools and the NHS?" asked one girl, and she wasn't put up to it by the Labour party.

Ffion Hague at Fairfield school
Ffion Hague at Fairfield school
Was Lady Thatcher wrong to say that we should never enter the euro, asked another. Awkward one that, forcing Mr Hague to repeat that well-worn formula that he was only promising to keep the pound for the next five years.

But perhaps the most revealing answer from the Tory leader came when a pupil asked how he would like to be described in the history books.

As a fighter, said Mr Hague, and as someone who had been able to make improvements in the lives of ordinary people, giving as an example his achievements as minister for the disabled in the last Government.

Oddly, he did not say "as a good Prime Minister."

The other criticism Mr Hague was facing during the day was over the latest Tory election broadcast, portraying Britain's youngsters as spending their time burning cars and dealing in drugs when they were not at school - the latest example, say the Conservatives' opponents, of an exceptionally negative style of campaigning.

The Tories really should choose the locations of their campaign stops better. After a visit to The Shambles in Wetherby last week, today's walkabout in Bury was in . Gutter Lane.

Tim Hirsch's diary, Thursday 24 May

It's official. Richard Branson's trains will get you where you want to go quicker than a jet. Much quicker. If you're travelling with the Conservative election tour, that is.

My colleague Laura Trevelyan decided to test out this theory on the journey to William Hague's first campaign stop in Birmingham this morning.

After all that travelling, the exotic location for Mr Hague's first event was a hotel car park in Edgbaston

Tim Hirsch
I stuck to the official Tory itinerary, which involved leaving my home in London at 6.45am in time to get to Conservative central office where the buses were waiting for us. Then out to RAF Northolt in West London to catch the campaign jet.

We were delayed as Her Majesty the Queen happened to be flying from the base at the same time, and the Royal airspace takes precedence over the Conservatives.

After the short flight and horrible traffic jams getting into Birmingham, we arrived at our destination at 11.15am, four and a half hours door to door.

Laura, meanwhile, had a lie in, hopped on a train to Birmingham and did the whole thing in two and a half hours, arriving well before me.

Car park visits

After all that travelling, the exotic location for Mr Hague's first event was a hotel car park in Edgbaston.

Car parks seem to be a favoured venue for Tory campaign stops - filled with supporters with Conservative placards, they look much the same as anywhere else on television, and it's easy to keep unwanted protesters at a safe distance.

But the control over this visit broke down in a refreshing way as Mr Hague went inside the hotel for a "meeting with local people", normally a highly-staged chat with sympathisers sharing their moans about the Labour government with the Tory leader.

This time, he was pulled up short by a lifelong Conservative voter who told Mr Hague that if he was really in touch with ordinary people, he would know that what really bothered them was the state of public services like health and education. "It ain't the euro," he was told.

Once again, it is the rare encounters with real people, despite the efforts of party organisers to orchestrate their leaders' campaigning, which provide the best moments of this election.

Tim Hirsch's diary, Wednesday 23 May

If a party leader is visiting the picturesque yachting village of Hamble on the Solent in Hampshire, there is only one place to pose for photographs - the Victory pub.

Sure enough, William and Ffion Hague made a beeline for it as they walked down the narrow cobbled lane towards the marina, pursued by the usual army of photographers and cameramen.

The Hagues in Hamble
The Hagues in Hamble
But would they go inside? Rumours started circulating that there were fourteen pints of lager lined up for him behind the bar, to test the now notorious claims about his drinking habits as a teenager.

But Mr Hague stayed outside, and declined the offer of a pint as it was passed out by a customer - "Thanks very much but I haven't got time," he said.

Then it was down to the seafront for the usual soap-box speech, but in rather more picturesque surroundings than the standard shopping centre version, with sailing boats bobbing in the brilliant sunshiine.

Mr Hague likes to give the impression that his campaign stops are all about meeting the real people of Britain, contrasting his open-air walkabouts with the more staged events favoured by the Prime Minister.

But walking a few paces ahead of the Hague scrum in the streets of Hamble, you can see how these spontaneous encounters with the voters are actually carefully engineered - his staff keep their eye out for friendly supporters wearing Tory badges and ask, "Would you like to meet Mr Hague?"

Then they are escorted under the blue rope and past the minders, excluding the unwelcome variety of voter, and find themselves right next to the couple and in front of the cameras. "Hello how are you? Thanks for your support." Is the usual extent of the conversation.

It all looks good on camera. But all is not what it seems in elections.

Tim Hirsch's diary, Tuesday 22 May

The Conservative campaign tour has been getting a little monotonous, and one person could be guaranteed to liven it up but not necessarily in the way the party bosses want.

The problem with Baroness Thatcher is that she does have a habit of up-staging everybody else, especially the incumbent Tory leader.

Baroness Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher did not stick to her speech
Whether by luck or design, the party found a secret weapon to avoid the embarrassment of the frenzied scenes of adulation which made life so difficult for John Major whenever his predecessor shared a platform with him.

At today's rally in Plymouth, where Lady Thatcher made her appearance, the Tories put the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Frances Maude, in the role of warm-up act for the star turn.

For all his talents, the cerebral Mr Maude is not the sort of person likely to whip-up a crowd into hysteria.

A parade of local Tory candidates onto the stage fell a bit flat as he forgot one of their names and had to ask him on the way up. And his attempt at Churchillian rhetoric was: "Let's fight and fight until we've won."

By the time Mr Maude introduced the heroine of the Tory faithful, they weren't so much warmed up as put on ice for a while.

She still got a rousing cheer and standing ovation, but it was all controlled enough to allow the Tory campaign team to breathe a sigh of relief, and the text of the speech circulated to the press all looked pretty safe. The trouble was, she didn't stick to it.

The mummy returns

First came a couple of good jokes. "This was supposed to be an unannounced visit, but on my way here I realised that wasn't the case as I saw a local cinema billboard saying "The Mummy Returns".

Bringing Lady Thatcher into the campaign was never going to be a risk-free enterprise, but it was probably less dangerous than trying to shut her up

Tim Hirsch
Then she spoke of her husband's fond attachment to Plymouth. "Dennis always keeps his cocktail cabinet well stocked up with Plymouth gin. He couldn't be here in person but he is certainly here in spirit."

All harmless stuff and relieved faces as she returned to her prepared text. Then she got to the key section on Europe. "Mr Blair says he wants to lead in Europe, but the price of that is that he is expected to lead Britain by the nose into the single currency and he is prepared to do it".

That was where the paragraph was supposed to end, but never one to hold back, Lady Thatcher added: "I would NEVER be prepared to give up on our currency!"

And with those few words she shattered the careful formula Mr Hague uses to accommodate the different views on Europe in the party, by pledging to keep Britain out of the euro only for the lifetime of the next parliament.

Of course those words got the biggest cheer of the speech. Bringing Lady Thatcher into the campaign was never going to be a risk-free enterprise, but it was probably less dangerous than trying to shut her up.

Tim Hirsch's diary, Monday 21 May

The photographers following William Hague on his campaign tour have been getting restless. In all his rushing around the country, Mr Hague has been carefully kept away from any photo-opportunities which might offer a hostage to fortune.

You can understand why - he has never quite lived down the image of riding a roller-coaster wearing a baseball cap, not the sort of thing which makes him look like a potential prime minister.

But it makes life very boring for those trying to capture the election photograph which is going to make it onto the front pages.

Hague in Southport
Hague greeted pensioners in Southport
Virtually every campaign stop has been a walk through a pedestrian precinct, a quick speech in front of a "Keep the Pound" lorry, or a rally inside a hotel or town hall, in front of a blue backdrop saying "Common Sense for Peterborough/ Southport/ St Albans (delete where appropriate)."

Not a hat or item of protective clothing in sight.

So the snappers have been watching with envy as the TV on the campaign bus shows Charles Kennedy in a hard hat chopping some logs, or Tony Blair walking round a fire station. "Photo op, photo op!" they cry to the Tory campaign team whenever one of these pops up.

On Mr Hague's visit to the Lancashire resort of Southport today, the photographers decide to take matters into their own hands. Before he arrives, one of them buys a blue stick of rock with "William" written through the middle, and suggests to the minders that it might make a nice picture.

There is some furrowing of brows and a few mobile phone calls as the possible consequences of such a photo are considered, but no objections are raised.

A mobile phone goes off: "If that's Tony Blair tell him it's too late to call off the election!" says Mr Hague. "He did that one in Peterborough," the hacks mutter

Tim Hirsch
So as the Hagues arrive for a short walk along the parade, Ffion is presented with the stick of rock, and she in turn hands it over to William. "That'll be useful for the plane back," he says, going out on a limb. The shutters whirr and the flashes flash. Result!

For those chasing words rather than images, the day is a little less rewarding. One colleague remarked that it's a little like following an Oasis tour having to listen to the same act again and again.

Even the ad libs in his Southport speech are familiar. A mobile phone goes off: "If that's Tony Blair tell him it's too late to call off the election!" says Mr Hague. "He did that one in Peterborough," the hacks mutter at the back as the audience roars with laughter.

Our correspondents report from the battle buses

Following Blair

Following Hague

Following Kennedy

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