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 A/V REPORTS
The BBC's Laura Trevelyan
spends a day with the Tories
 real 56k

Tuesday, 22 May, 2001, 10:12 GMT 11:12 UK
Travelling with the Tories
Correspondents on the Tory battlebus
Correspondents on the Tory battlebus
Week one on the Tory battlebus, with Tim Hirsch and Laura Trevelyan


Tim Hirsch's diary, Friday 18 May

Imagine the scene. You are travelling on a coach through the Kent countryside, and someone is standing up at the front speaking through the tour guide's microphone.

Then suddenly you realise the guide is not pointing out the sights - it is Ann Widdecombe in a plaid suit, talking about the Conservatives' plans to get tough on bogus asylum-seekers.

The other passengers are senior political journalists, and this is a press conference on wheels.

It sounds like a bizarre dream, but this is the surreal world of the campaign battlebus, leaving Dover after William Hague's speech on asylum policy.

Hague in the Tory election plane
Criss-crossing the country with William Hague
We approach a series of rusting Nissen huts on the edge of a bleak airfield, and wonder whether we're being taken to see the secure reception centres for asylum-seekers being promised by the Tories. But this is where the campaign jet is waiting for us, to take us all the way to Essex.

Many of these flights are so short that it is a real challenge for the flight attendants to wheel the drinks trolley down the aisle between take-off and landing, but they face the wrath of thirsty hacks if they fail to get to the back before the seat-belt signs come on.

From Stansted airport, we are driven to another small airstrip near Braintree where William and Ffion Hague are arriving separately by helicopter.

Tory spin-doctors have a sudden panic as they see a vintage bi-plane with a swastika on the tail, parked close to the place where cameras have set up to film the arrival.

Fearing an unfortunate photograph in the next day's papers, they hurriedly move a car in front of the offending plane and the event goes smoothly.

Mr Hague's walkabouts with ordinary voters seem to have dried up for the moment, though campaign officials say there's no connection with the rough ride he had in Wolverhampton the other day, or with John Prescott's brush with an egg.


John Prescott is the only politician to be given special protection officers whose job is to protect the public from him

Hague's joke of the day
Both scheduled events today are inside secure buildings and by invitation only, though after meeting hand-picked local people in Braintree Town Hall, Mr Hague does emerge onto the balcony to address the mainly sympathetic crowd.

It is the same speech, but with another new joke. "John Prescott is the only politician to be given special protection officers whose job is to protect the public from him."

They're getting better.


Tim Hirsch's diary, Thursday 17 May

After Labour's Wobbly Wednesday, William Hague is enjoying himself.

What better day to launch a poster on law and order - asked if he would have done the same as John Prescott if provoked by an egg-throwing protestor, he says "It's not my policy to hit the voters during an election."

That's put to the test straight away as Mr Hague's event is interrupted by a couple of chanting protestors who've gate-crashed the venue in a hotel car park in Peterborough, using the subtle tactic of checking into the hotel and asserting their rights as residents.

The Tory leader keeps his cool, and violence is averted.


One of the more wearisome parts of following this tour is that Mr Hague tends to make exactly the same speech, with the same jokes, each time he reaches a new town

Tim Hirsch
But it does not all go smoothly for Mr Hague. He uses a closed meeting in the hotel to tell Conservative supporters that Labour's woes of the day before showed the real face of the party when things began to slip from their control.

As soon as he finishes, he is harangued by an independent candidate who has slipped into the meeting, and who's promptly shouted down by the Tory faithful.

One of the more wearisome parts of following this tour is that Mr Hague tends to make exactly the same speech, with the same jokes, each time he reaches a new town, changing the place names and candidates where appropriate.

It goes down well every time with the local audiences who haven't heard it, but makes life a bit repetitive for the camp followers like ourselves. So there's much anticipation on the bus to St Albans as a Tory spin-doctors tells us to listen out for a new John Prescott joke, assuring us it would be very funny.

In his "Save the Pound" rally in St Albans town hall it was that speech again, but here came the new joke: "John Prescott should have taken advice from the real Deputy Prime Minister, Alistair Campbell, who we know is a great fan of Britney Spears. He could have told him that 'Hit me baby one more time' was not meant to be the Labour campaign theme tune."

How we laugh. Only three weeks to go.


Tim Hirsch's diary, Wednesday 16 May

Half an hour before William Hague arrives for his morning walkabout in Portsmouth, the town centre is like any other.

Shoppers going about their business, little suspecting the chaos which is about to descend on them. A few Tory supporters with blue balloons gathered outside Dixons in the pedestrianised precinct are the only clue of what is to come.

As the time approaches, the road starts to fill with party workers wearing Hague T-shirts, who are putting up barriers and preparing the famous blue rope to mark out the path of their leader's progress.


A teenager with strawberry-coloured hair gets into the spirit of things and shakes Mr Hague's hand, then turns round and asks someone who exactly he is anyway

Tim Hirsch
The press buses arrive, and the cameras take up their positions. The Conservative faithful are positioned to try to mask the protesters with anti-Tory placards who've joined the gathering crowd.

Then the Hague jag arrives, and all hell breaks loose. With Ffion at his side as ever, Mr Hague somehow manages to move through the phalanx of cameras, photographers, protesters and the odd ordinary shopper.

His minder, Lord Coe, tries his best to keep things in hand, swiftly pulling down a "Tory scum" placard which is getting too close to the leader.

A teenager with strawberry-coloured hair gets into the spirit of things and shakes Mr Hague's hand, then is handed a Tory poster and starts to wave it enthusiastically, joining in the shout "Blair out, Hague in," then turns round and asks someone who exactly he is anyway.

After a few minutes of all this, the leader is back in his jag and the shopping centre gets back to normal as if nothing has happened.

Observing the ritual for the first time is comedian Rory Bremner, joining the Hague battlebus for the day after being barred from Labour's team. "My God, you guys do this for a living?" he asks the slightly bruised hacks sympathetically.

It's only day three, but the pace of these whistle-stop visits is already starting to get to some of the press. As the campaign jet touches down at lunchtime, one hack phones his newsroom and says, "We've just landed. I think we're in Birmingham."

William Hague
Hague's whistle-stop tour took him to Portsmouth
We are indeed, and the press buses get stuck in another M6 traffic jam on the way to Wolverhampton. Once again, things are getting horribly behind schedule, and as we pull into the town centre, we see Mr Hague's battlebus pulling out the other way.

The snappers, as press photographers are affectionately called, are furious and remonstrate with the unfortunate Tory press officer on our bus.

"Time for common sense!" shouts a voice from the back.


Tim Hirsch's diary, Tuesday 15 May

Another day, another whirlwind tour with the Tories. Things are looking up. After yesterday's mutterings about the party's failure to live up to its promises of lavish hospitality, bacon and sausage sandwiches in abundance greet the bleary-eyed hacks as they arrive at Central Office in London.

"Amazing what a bit of bad press can do," one of the ladies serving them says cheerfully.

Following a party leader on the election trail is a bizarre and often frustrating process. After a 7am start, a bus to RAF Northolt, the campaign jet to Birmingham minus Mr Hague - he makes his own way from London.

Then another bus struggling through the usual M6 jams, and we are at the first campaign stop in Stafford by 1030, feeling we could surely have got there quicker by public transport and had an extra hour's sleep.


Bacon and sausage sandwiches in abundance greet the bleary-eyed hacks.

Tim Hirsch

The leader is due to arrive at 1130, but word comes through that he is running late. The journos are getting restive - nearly lunchtime and not a word to report or a single picture to send.

"Billy's little bandwagon", the Labour-inspired protest truck which is shadowing Mr Hague, has cracked the supposedly secret itinerary and blares out the "Wombles" theme. This is the more famous work of Mike Batt, who supplied the Tories with their campaign anthem. Today's placard is "Even Wombles can add up", an apparent commentary on the confusion over tax-cutting policy.

Just after noon, a flurry of mobile phone calls from Tory flunkies and the appearance of the blue rope to corral the press signals that he's on his way.

As Mr Hague's Jaguar pulls up at the hotel for his first meeting, he walks up to the assembled media and as promised provides a "doorstep", snatched questions for as long as he chooses to stop.

Virtually all the questions are on tax, and he stops for all of two minutes. Mr Hague is asked why he's delayed, and he mysteriously puts it down to the weather.
William and Ffion Hague
The Hagues next to the blue battlebus

The rest of the day's schedule is looking iffy, and some of us decide to leapfrog the battlebus tour and go straight to Mr Hague's second location, the pretty market town of Wetherby near Leeds.

We find the Tory faithful waiting excitedly in the market square with their blue balloons and "Keep the Pound" placards.

They're told that their leader has been delayed but could they please stick around and keep up that excitement, and it emerges that somehow the rest of the press corps have been stranded at Leeds Bradford airport - but close to a convenient bar.

Mr Hague eventually sweeps into the square to cheers, these are his kind of people, in a rural, prosperous part of his home county of Yorkshire, which should be Tory but wasn't in 1997.

He finds that the platform constructed for his stump speech has for some reason been dismantled, but he makes it anyway.

First shouting without a microphone, then eventually is handed one but is invisible to the crowd because of the scrum of cameras. It still goes down well.

I look at the name of the street leading off the market square. It's The Shambles.


Tim Hirsch's diary, Monday 14 May

Reading the morning papers, those of us assigned to the Conservative battlebus team felt we had it lucky.

Unlike the spartan conditions on the Labour and Lib Dem campaign trail, the Tories would be offering lavish hospitality to the press - four course lunches, wine on tap, the lot.


Arriving at the crack of dawn at Conservative Central Office in London, buoyed up by reports of bacon rolls, there was not even a cup of coffee in sight

Tim Hirsch
Judging by the first day, this seems to have been an aspiration rather than a commitment, as politicians say when they fail to keep their promises.

Arriving at the crack of dawn at Conservative Central Office in London, buoyed up by reports of bacon rolls, there was not even a cup of coffee in sight.

The coffee did eventually surface, and just before the bus was about to leave, so did the food - but not quite what we expected.

It was traditional British fare according to the recent speech by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook - chicken tikka massala pastries. Most of us gave breakfast a miss.

Norwich walkabout

Then it was off on the Tory jet, "Time for Common Sense" emblazoned on the fuselage, to catch William Hague on his walkabout in Norwich market.

Despite attempts by the Hague team to create some kind of order with their blue rope to keep camera crews at bay as the leader pressed the flesh, this was a pleasantly-chaotic affair.


Some of the more mutinous members of the press peered into the forward compartment where the Hagues were sitting, and reported back, not unexpectedly, that their fare was rather more substantial

Tim Hirsch
It was rather like a moving rugby scrum, bringing Mr Hague into contact with plenty of ordinary people, including one seller of the Big Issue who succeeded in getting him to autograph her magazine.

Lunch was promised on the next plane journey to Cardiff. Expectation was high. There was wine. And a roll (choice of beef, tuna and coronation chicken). And an apple.

At this stage some of the more mutinous members of the press peered into the forward compartment where the Hagues were sitting, and reported back, not unexpectedly, that their fare was rather more substantial.

On to the land of his wife's fathers, and an embarrassing revelation at the launch of the Welsh Tory manifesto - the Welsh-language version contained so many grammatical mistakes that its publication was being delayed.

Perhaps a wise decision for a party trying to build themselves up from a total Welsh wipe-out in 1997 - the Conservatives never quite recovered from the image of William Hague's predecessor as Welsh Secretary, John Redwood, spectacularly failing to sing along to the Welsh national anthem.

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