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Tuesday, 26 June, 2001, 10:06 GMT 11:06 UK
Nick Clarke's election diary
Presenter Nick Clarke
Nick Clarke: Relentless in his pursuit of good coffee
During the 2001 election campaign, the World at One's presenter Nick Clarke wrote a diary of his experiences on the campaign trail.

Such was the beauty of this prose, we have kept the diary on the site after the election for his many fans.

Wednesday 6 June - 1 DAY TO GO

Perhaps it was an act of charity by William Hague, anxious to avoid possibility of the World at One's election campaign going out with a bit of a whimper.

Labour, after all, was abandoning London once again in favour of an earnest, exhortatory event at Beeston, far away on the outskirts of Nottingham. And the Liberal Democrats were going through the motions of another neat-and-tidy press conference on the public services. Where was the last-day razzamatazz to come from?

Mr Hague took up the challenge.

The entire media circus was told to report to the London Weekend studios on the South Bank, home to such dazzling stars as Richard and Judy, Melvyn Bragg and Jack Dee. Rumours abounded. One suggested that the entire Shadow Cabinet was to be wheeled into the studio concealed in a kind of Trojan Horse, symbolising a terrific victory by plucky warriors against overwhelming odds.

We milled around, like so many game-show audiences before us, waiting for something to happen. (Unfortunately, the coffee tasted just the same as the Central Office brew.) Eventually, twenty minutes late, we were shown into our red-plush seats, separated by a barrier from the Tory activists in the first few rows. Lights flickered on the cyclorama like a gas-effect fire. On the stage, five circular podiums were bathed in a sulphurous light: each carried a lectern and a stool.

The warm-up man and host turned out to be Michael Ancram.

Another theory was that this was turning into a beauty parade - a dry run for a post-election leadership contest

Then, Michael Portillo, Anne Widdecombe and Francis Maude took it in turns to make a grand entrance, mount his or her individual golden disc, before delivering highly personal accounts of their political philosophy and roots. These people were flesh and blood, the message seemed to be. Anne Widdecombe cracked a joke about the 60's. As a young woman, she said, politics had always been her passion, though others had chosen 'more exotic activities'.

But it was hard to concentrate. The set was simply too distracting, and before long the audience - to a man and woman - began willing Ann Robinson to appear. Once the idea of the Weakest Link had infiltrated our collective brains, nothing could shift it.

Another theory was that this was turning into a beauty parade - a dry run for a post-election leadership contest.

Or - and this flight of fancy may be lost on younger readers - had Tory strategists decided to re-create the Crackerjack set? Was Eamonn Andrews about to appear with a sheaf of questions and those wonderful Crackerjack pens? And would Francis Maude soon be bowing under the weight of his prizes (for correct answers) and cabbages (the penalty for mistakes), before, inevitably, something slipped from his grasp, and he was forced to topple off into the wings to nurse his disappointment?

Outside, an impromptu pierrot show had Margaret Thatcher and John Major manipulating a William Hague puppet. This didn't seem to bear any relation to Mr Hague's real problems, yet it's the sort of thing that happens when your fortunes are at a low ebb. Inside, the South Bank Show was a brave affair, but it felt uncomfortably like another re-launch. And surely it was too late to persuade voters of the personal qualities of the Tory front-bench team?

We hurried back to put together the last World at One of the 2001 campaign. We think we know what's going to happen, and so do all those politicians who've stalked the pages of this diary for the past month. The difference is, that our jobs don't depend on it.

Tuesday, 5 June - 2 DAYS TO GO

After ignoring the problem for several days, Michael Portillo finally cracked today.

As he stood at the press conference podium, the sound of drilling in some nearby room - a regular backdrop to these gatherings - intensified, until it started to drown out Mr Portillo's words: even the pauses were filled with determined hammering.

Mr Portillo stopped in mid-sentence, and demanded that somebody from Central Office do something to stop the noise.

None of us has been able to understand how the Tories have let this go on so long: it's inconceivable that Labour would have tolerated such disruption to their presentations. But then there has been so much about this election that has challenged past precedent.

It's become a two-horse race, and - grudgingly - I declare the Liberal Democrats the winners

I can't remember a campaign with so many people hidden from view. Cabinet ministers, like Robin Cook, rarely seen in public; Kenneth Clarke and his fellow Tory Europhiles, locked away in their constituencies, trying to avoid rocking William Hague's boat; or candidates like Keith Vaz and Geoffrey Robinson, whose problems are deemed too sensitive for them to be exposed to public gaze.

Over the last few days, by contrast, we've been witnessing one of the most high-profile roles ever played by a former Prime Minister. Lady Thatcher is back, and apparently loving it. Not many politicians could get away with a soundbite involving the purchase of a pair of Y-Fronts for her husband.

It would have been fun to have her on show at the morning conferences, too. You can't help feeling that the phantom driller would have got very short shrift indeed.

And for those of you who've assuredly been worrying about these things, one moment of truth has already come: the great conference coffee challenge. With Labour deserting London for key marginals (a shameful attempt to dodge the final judgement), it's become a two-horse race, and - grudgingly - I declare the Liberal Democrats the winners.

To be honest, those who've spotted me in the queue for Ravellos in recent days will perhaps understand my decision to draw the contest to a premature conclusion.

Monday, 4 June - 3 DAYS TO GO

As I walked back to the office from the Liberal Democrat press conference this morning, a man sidled up to me.

'I am a journalist from Finland,' he said.

I looked (I hope) suitably attentive. 'Charles Kennedy,' he went on, in a confidential tone, 'is quite short - about five feet ten, no?' I thought that sounded on the high side, but let it ride.

Perhaps my Finnish friend was expresing the unfairness of a world in which taller people with hair may have further blessings lavished upon them

'And Mr Hague is perhaps five feet eleven? And he is bald?' Unsure as to where this leading, I made a non-committal noise.

'Tony Blair, he is a little taller, just over six feet, I think.' There was a pause, because I couldn't think of anything to say.

He produced a newspaper cutting from his pocket, from the Guardian, I think. 'In Finland, he said, 'we do not have this.' With that - and a knowing look - he was gone.

Maybe my Finnish friend was offering a sympathetic response to the apparent bleakness of Tory prospects, and the unfairness of a world in which taller people with hair may have further blessings lavished upon them.

Certainly William Hague's press conference was distinctly low-key this morning, as well it might have been when the main topic of conversation was how to avoid a catastrophic defeat.

'Pricking Labour's Bubble,' as the new poster campaign was introduced, is hardly designed to inspire confidence amongst candidates across the land.

I have never seen Anne Widdecombe so cast down - she hardly raised a smile and never spoke

I have never seen Anne Widdecombe so cast down. Throughout the whole half hour of the conference, she hardly raised a smile and never spoke.

The Liberal Democrats, by contrasts, were unfeasibly cheerful. Charles Kennedy still looks like a man for whom 8.00 am is a foreign country, but there's no disguising his party's optimism.

The former London Mayoral candidate, Susan Kramer, made her fourth appearance on the platform - and the first at which she was not introduced as 'the woman who gave Ken Livingstone all his best ideas.'

We regular attenders were thankful for small mercies.

Labour, meanwhile, were digesting the news that Ladbrokes have already begun to pay out on election bets, though no one will have become rich on the odds on offer in recent weeks.

And why pay out early? One cynical soul suggested that it was on the basis that punters - on receiving their meagre reward - would decide to splurge the lot on a much more risky bet - like Tony Blair's majority.

Friday, 1 June - DAY 24

A surreal end to the third week of campaigning. As I walked across Smith Square towards Conservative Central Office, a trim figure wearing a blue rosette and slicked-back hair approached me, bearing leaflets.

Distracted by the need to frame a fascinating question for William Hague, I applied my 'not now, old chap,' smile and scurried past, avoiding eye-contact.

Inside, Mr Hague remained his usual smiling self, and produced a good piece of repartee when asked about the latest GMTV popularity poll, in which he beat all the other party-leaders.

The only drawback was that the poll was to establish whose body-double should be pushed off a bridge on a bungee-rope.

Would William Hague like to meet his body-double? Certainly, he could think of all kinds of occasions on which a double could be of use.

Would he like to meet his body-double? Certainly, he replied. He could think of all kinds of occasions on which a double could be of use. 'Very handy indeed,' he added, without elaborating.

As I emerged into the square half an hour later, that same trim figure was surrounded by a scrum of cameras and notebooks: to anyone who'd listen, he was explaining how he, Michael Portillo, was looking forward to 'a new and better future after this election, and in particular after the leadership election that follows.'

This act of open treachery was easier to understand when I got close enough to realise that this Michael Portillo bore an uncanny resemblance to Rory Bremner.

'Just remember - £8bn' he was saying to Nick Jones, 'is that enough for you? Would you like £20bn? I can make it £24bn if you like, however much it would take to swing your vote.' And then 'Don't forget - Six Days to Save the Party!'

Labour's press briefing was lighter on jokes, but notable for the appearance of the Treasury minister, Dawn Primarolo, who's been practically invisible for the past four years - and, to the best of my recollection, never appeared for a World at One interview.

And all this followed a moment of madness at the Lib Dems. By way of background, the conferences have been enjoying some of the Radio 5 Live questions posed by Fi Glover. 'Who's going to win the snail race?' 'Shouldn't Mr Blair have taken one thing from Mrs Thatcher - the use of hair spray in a high wind?' And so on.

Today, at the Lib Dems, she was silent. Tim Razzall, who chairs the events, was obviously disappointed. As the questions drew to a close, he looked at her with obvious disappointment, and uttered the immortal words: 'Fi is clearly not going to give us our normal morning pleasure.'

Thursday 31st May - DAY 23

The World at One went to Belfast - like so many others (according to Dr Ian Paisley) flying in, getting everything wrong and then going home again. 

He was smiling as he said it, so perhaps he was teasing me. He certainly seemed very chirpy, happily waiting for my interview, before demanding to know who was going to take him to the canteen for his breakfast.

Dr Paisley's man refused to share a studio with the Sinn Fein spokesman, and took part down the line - from a studio at the other end of the corridor

Clearly he's confident that his Democratic Unionist Party is about to trounce David Trimble, a man he likes to denounce casually as a traitor. 

A little later, I turned up at Mr Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party morning conference. It's a different sort of occasion from the London version of the campaign show.

There's no coffee at all, for one thing. And the press circle is smaller and more intimate, so that journalists don't wait to be called to ask a question, but just chip in whenever they feel like it. It's more like a conversation than a conference.

The closest the UUP came to visual aids was a pair of laptop computers on the desk, facing outwards, with a few powerpoint graphs and pictures flitting by illegibly. 

David Trimble teased me, too.

What about the timing of the IRA statement today? I enquired. It might, said Mr T, have something to do with an election of some sort taking place next week.

He accompanied this with a beam of pure delight, and afterwards I was congratulated for evoking perhaps the only Trimble joke of the entire campaign. 

Because this event overran, I missed the launch of Sinn Fein's Cultural Manifesto at the Irish Language Centre on the Falls Road, but since most of the proceedings were conducted in Irish I suppose I didn't miss much, and wouldn't have known any better if I had.

As a bonus, I managed to catch up with the elusive John Hume, leader of the SDLP, who is celebrated for his haphazard time-keeping, though he almost bamboozled us by turning up half an hour earlier than planned. 

We finished the programme by staging another four-party debate, only this one had a twist: Dr Paisley's man refused to share a studio with the Sinn Fein spokesman, and took part down the line - from a studio at the other end of the corridor.

Of such small oddities is this complex Northern Ireland election composed - an election on which the fate of the Good Friday Agreement seems to depend. 

We flew home, and waited to find out if Ian Paisley's judgement had been right.

Wednesday 30th May - DAY 22

Wonder of wonders!

For the first time in this campaign - in fact, perhaps for the first time since Tony Blair took over the chair at New Labour Inc - Peter Hitchens of the Mail on Sunday was called to ask a question at a Labour press conference. 

The pressure has been building ever since 1997. In that campaign as in this one, Hitchens has been turning up religiously, day after day; he sits directly in Gordon Brown's eyeline and raises his hand at the first invitation, clasping a small orange notebook to make sure that his arm is not lost against a sea of grey suits. And when everyone else lowers their hands between questions, his remains stiffly erect, like the sail of a small ship in a strong wind.

Occasionally he mutters a few words of protest. Once last week he was moved to issue a cry of resentment as another half-hour of invisibility passed by. Surely, deep down inside, feelings of existential angst must have been stirring: 'Am I really here? Can I be sure that this event is not a figment of my imagination, the crazed stirring of a mind left too long in isolation?'  

That's what happens when you allow pent-up questions to build up like molten lava, I thought

Perhaps the pressure finally touched even the rigorous and prudent soul of Gordon Brown. It takes quite an effort of will to ignore someone so assiduously, to be searching always for someone else - anyone else - to call. They say that jailers sometimes feel the pain of their prisoners.

The dam broke just before the end of today's conference, which was running out of steam. The Hitchens hand alone was unbowed. A murmuring began somewhere in the ranks of his fellow-scribes, scarcely audible at first, but gradually growing in intensity until words were clear to all: 'Call Hitchens! Call Hitchens! Call Hitchens!'

Who knows what primeval turmoil was going on in the Chancellor's iron breast, what slights and slanders from the Hitchens pen had seared themselves into his, and Labour's, collective consciousness. For a moment, Mr Brown's hunted gaze darted round the room, seeking sanctuary - but there was none. 

He called Peter Hitchens.

So momentous was this event, that he felt the need to growl a word or two of explanation. 'Last time I called him he asked FOUR questions.' That's what happens when you allow pent-up questions to build up like molten lava, I thought. 

Hitchens rose to his feet, and began to speak.....  

Tuesday 29th May - DAY 21

Strange drilling noises have plagued Conservative Central Office during morning press conferences - is it William Hague's staff drilling an escape tunnel in case things go wrong on June 7th?

Or Kenneth Clarke and his fellow Europhiles (who are among 'the disappeared' of this election) trying to burrow their way in?

Either way, it adds to the slightly manic atmosphere at CCO, where William Hague alone exudes an air of calm confidence. The air of a man who knows something to which neither we, nor his party workers are privy.

They're certainly confident at Labour: Alistair Campbell took the unusual step of revealing the outcome of the party's private polling - a 20% lead over the Tories, he claims.

The conventional wisdom is that such information makes voters stay at home. Mr Campbell must be another of those in the possession of knowledge hidden from the rest of us.

Today Gordon Brown was so confident that he was prepared to discourse expansively on the subject of symmetrical inflation targets. Andrew Marr obviously knows what they are, because he asked a question about them.

And the answer certainly sounded intriguing. The key thing you need to know is that Europe's targets are asymmetrical, which is obviously very regrettable.

Labour's conference ended with a question (from Jackie Ashley of the New Statesman) about reported Blair/Brown tensions. Was there a comparison, she wondered, with Lennon and Macartney?

Michael White of the Guardian suggested helpfully - 'who gets shot?'

As the two men tried to work out which was supposed to be which, and to formulate a suitably witty response, Michael White of the Guardian suggested helpfully - 'who gets shot?'

And finally, on the confidence front, the Liberal Democrats tried a pre-emptive strike on the subject of female representation.

(Followers of this diary know it's a sensitive subject. Giles Brandreth, who's covering the election as a TV reporter, commiserated with me over the loss of my reputation among the Westminster press-corps.)

So, no fewer than four of the five Lib Dem platform speakers were women.

There was one glaring absentee. The party's shadow minister for women was inexplicably away on some grass-roots campaigning.

But then the presence of the shadow minister might have wrecked this splendid feminine photo-op. It's a man: Evan Harris.

Monday 28th May - DAY 20

The Liberal Democrats cancelled their 8.00 am press conference this morning.

Perhaps they felt that generating enthusiastic interest in environmental audits or proportional representation might be a bit tricky so early on a Bank Holiday. Minds might well be wandering, after all. Mine was always likely to drift towards an idyllic corner of the Chilterns - a village called The Lee - where I was missing a traditional cricket match for the first time in more than a decade.

Ah well. But you can see why most politicians fighting for their livelihoods find it impossible to take the day off.

And later in the day, the Lib Dems were at least trying to focus on the environment, a subject which last week generated just 0.8% of the available news coverage. (Thanks to the Guardian for that statistic).

The Bank Holiday certainly did wreak havoc with the turn-out at those events that did take place. There were plenty of empty seats at the Tories, while Labour delayed their event until 10.30 as a gesture towards the holiday spirit. I even spotted Alistair Campbell in a t-shirt.

The elusive Mr Letwin - campaigning, apparently, entirely on his own - declined my offer of a snap interview

None of this prevented quite a complex debate through the morning over the question to be posed in some future referendum on the Euro - so no slacking on the intellectual effort required.

At least I had the weekend off. And not only that - I managed to pick up a scoop in the process. I was fishing around in the flower stall in Sherborne market, when a rather apologetic figure in a suit wandered round the corner.

'You are Oliver Letwin and I claim my £5!' I cried, in an echo of those old newspaper competitions that used to require readers to spot Lobby Ludd in various seaside resorts.

The elusive Mr Letwin - campaigning, apparently, entirely on his own - declined my offer of a snap interview. But he conceded that the party wasn't entirely unhappy to have lodged the idea of huge long-term tax-cuts in voters' minds. The little smile gave the game away.

As I walked back up the main street, a Frenchman selling strings of onions from his bicycle was watching campaigners hand out 'Save the Pound stickers. 'They are mad,' he opined. But I noticed that he was perfectly happy to accept six coins of the realm before muttering his way off to the next customer. The Euro-debate as it takes place in the real world...

Friday 25th May - DAY 17

It's hard to tell which of us was more embarrassed. Gordon Brown fell foul of a plot by lobby correspondents, who decided to expose what they believe is his misogynist streak.

The plan was fiendishly simple. When the time came for questions, not a single male hand would be raised. Then, as if by magic, a stream of female journalists would finally get the chance to have the first bite at the Labour cherry.

It all worked pretty well, except for one thing. Having missed the preliminary discussions (being in Edinburgh yesterday) nobody bothered to tell me about the plan.

The five-year-old daughter of Mary-Ann Sieghart (of the Times) held up her hand, day after day, only to be ignored by Gordon Brown. She wanted to ask: 'If you win the election, what would you do for me?'

Consequently, with all the usual bleariness of an 8.30 press conference, I limply raised my arm as soon as questions were called. To my astonishment, Mr Brown turned to me first. Only then did it begin to dawn on me that all was not as it seemed. In the circumstances, my colleagues were quite forgiving.

Actually, mine wasn't the only hand, to be strictly accurate. Peter Hitchens, columnist for the Mail on Sunday, has been trying to get a question answered for the past fortnight.

He is always studiously ignored by Labour, in a unique piece of cold-shouldering that dates back to the last election and beyond.

The only other instance I can remember of such assiduous avoidance of a single questioner came in 1997, too.

The five-year-old daughter of Mary-Ann Sieghart (of the Times) accompanied her mother to the Labour meetings on her way to school.

As time went on, she decided she wanted to ask a question of her own. Day after day, she held up her hand, only to have her request ignored by Mr Brown.

Other journalists pressed him to notice the child, but he was unbending - no doubt remembering the old adage of not appearing on stage with animals or children.

This week, I asked Mary-Ann what the question would have been. Her daughter was, it appears, going to ask: 'If you win the election, what would you do for me?'

We shall never know whether Mr Brown would have had an answer to this conundrum.

Culinary footnote: in my Scottish diary yesterday, I forgot to mention that the Wato team managed to find a restaurant which made a nonsense of the popular belief that all food comes fried in batter. The place had run out of chips.

Thursday 24th May - DAY 16

What happens when metropolitan programmes leave London - according to this week's Guardian diary by the editor of one of our sister programmes (here's a clue - it goes out from 6.00 am-9.00 am), is that 'we mispronounce local place names and go on about how grim everything is'.

Well, WATO wasn't going to make those mistakes.

To begin with, we chose Edinburgh on a sparkling early-summer day. 'Grim' never crossed our mind.

And to guard against that other pitfall, we had a Scottish editor - with a family home in Edinburgh. Thus protected, we began our brief survey of politics in Scotland by recording the sound of a JCB revving up next to a building site. Sir Malcolm Rifkind was there, too.

I did manage to get through most of the show without a horrible celtic faux-pas

It all made sense at the time, I promise.

The SNP were conducting their 'event' at the local jail, forgetting perhaps that prisoners can't vote; and the Liberal Democrats called a (small) press conference at which WATO formed 25% of the audience. (In an attempt to persuade us to return the next day, the party dangled the lure of bacon butties. I couldn't bring myself to tell them that we'd be long gone. And that I was a veggie, anyway.)

The climax of this morning of endeavour was an entertaining four-way discussion between the main parties. And I did manage to get through most of the show without a horrible celtic faux-pas.

Except for one word.

The building site (home of the new Parliament building) is next to Holyrood Palace, on Holyrood Road. I'd been told repeatedly that it was pronounced 'Holly-' not 'Holy-'. But as I read through the script on air, and saw the word looming further down the page, doubts began to seep into my mind - 'Holly-', 'Holy-', 'Holly-', 'Holy-'....

The result was not a success. More like a clearing of the throat than anything else. So perhaps the guy from Today had a point......

Wednesday 23rd May - DAY 15

Lloyd George was back this morning - inspiring the Liberal Democrats to commit more money to the Health Service, apparently.

It's his second appearance of the week: yesterday, Charles Kennedy was asked what characteristics he thought he shared with his illustrious predecessor.

Mr Kennedy spotted the trap. Some of the more exotic aspects of Lloyd George's lifestyle are not the sort of thing a modern party leader could admit to. He contented himself with the obvious - 'Great man, but he didn't even know my father.'

On the theme of voices from the beyond, Baroness Thatcher was much in evidence today, too. Her declaration that she would NEVER give up the pound sparked off a lively, if predictable, debate at this morning's press conferences about what the Tories really think.

(Interestingly, all current politicians still refer to her as Mrs Thatcher, as if their image of her is frozen in some pre-Baronial age - say, 1985.)

But the other notable feature of today's press gatherings was a rumbling of protest amongst the press.

It certainly doesn't go as far as the excellent Matthew Parris suggests in today's Times. He thinks that political journalists should be less ready to join in with events organised by the parties, and should instead start heckling or 'kicking over the stage sets' to prove our independence.

There was, however, what became a full-blown soap-box rant by Michael White of the Guardian, when purportedly asking a question of William Hague on Europe. And Michael Portillo provoked an outbreak of uncontrolled questioning (scary stuff!) when he refused to rule out raising VAT.

Labour's control remained a bit more rigid. Yet as Gordon Brown intoned his five tests on joining the Euro for the 'n'th time, I did find myself thinking of theft.

The party's red coffee cups ('the work goes on') come from the same stock as those Nescafe mugs garages used to hand out for free: here they're on sale for £8.99. But apparently, more are handed out each morning than are left behind when the press depart. And they would go rather well with my new kitchen decorations ......

Tuesday 22nd May - DAY 14

Today a little piece of history repeated itself.

None of us who worked on the 1997 campaign will ever forget the hunt for Andrew Smith.

He was the hapless shadow minister responsible for a ringing declaration at the previous year's Labour conference, promising that Air Traffic Control (NATS) would not be privatised.

'Our air,' cried Mr Smith, 'is not for sale!'

So when Gordon Brown, less than 6 months later, said that NATS would be privatised under Labour, we thought it only right to seek Mr Smith's response.

We spotted Oliver Letwin on Sky TV and I sprinted round to Conservative Central Office just in time for a brief, breathless interview before he was bundled away in a taxi

He went to ground. And he stayed there until an intrepid World at One reporter tracked him down several days later, in a backwater on the North-West coast, and conducted the awkward interview that he'd tried so hard to avoid.

What a delicious irony then, when the Tory treasury spokesman Oliver Letwin disappeared, the man designated by Labour to pursue him was - Andrew Smith.

He appeared by video link at this morning's Labour press conference, beaming at the camera, (though horribly out of sync) in Dorset - Mr Letwin's constituency.

Unbeknownst to Mr Smith, Mr Letwin was at that moment not in West Dorset, but in Westminster, just round the corner from Labour HQ.

We spotted him on Sky TV, and I sprinted round to Conservative Central Office just in time for a brief, breathless interview before he was bundled away in a taxi.

And Mr Smith? We thought it would be nice to interview HIM, not just about Mr Letwin, but about the Chancellor's reluctance to rule out increased National Insurance Contributions.

And do you know what happened?

He disappeared. We chased him through the morning without success. But then he's had plenty of practice.

Monday 21st May - DAY 13

When I was a small boy, the start of each new term at boarding school was a depressing event, but my parents did their best to numb the pain with a few treats.

The very last of these was a visit to the cartoon cinema at Victoria Station.

The films were on an hour-long loop, and the worst moment of the day came when my mother or father cottoned on to the fact that they were watching Tom and Jerry's antics for the second time.

Out we trooped onto the platform, and I was despatched into exile.

It's possible that some voters might be starting to feel the same way about this election campaign. Two weeks in, and the 'tax and spend' story has come round again. Are we doomed to undergo a re-run of the same knockabout comedy for the next two and a half weeks?

Many observers seem to think that the Labour and Tory campaigns are mirror images of each other: the first says the second will have to slash spending to pay for tax cuts - the second maintains that the first will have to raise taxes to pay for spending increases.

The Liberal Democrats smile - just a little bit smugly - on the sidelines. Charles Kennedy - who today told us proudly that his business endorsements include the boss of his favourite brand of malt whisky - says we'll love to pay higher taxes to get the services we want.

A few brave souls, mainly from independent television, have opted for scooters to race between conferences

The whole thing has become something of a 'tableau vivant' - live figures frozen in a fixed pose. Which is why John Prescott's punch was such a jolt to the system.

We journalists, of course, make up for it by moving around as fast as possible.

Indeed a few brave souls, mainly from independent television for some reason, opted for scooters to race between conferences. Yet even that sort of enterprise can go awry.

There are strong, though still unconfirmed, reports that Eleanor Goodman has been reduced to foot-slogging like the rest of us - after Channel 4's insurers refused to carry the risk of her rapid transit round Westminster.

Friday 18th May - DAY TEN

The Worst Joke of the Campaign prize can safely be awarded - with three weeks still to go.

"This," said Tim Razzall, the Liberal Democrat campaign chief, "is our agriculture spokesman. He tells me he's the last of the breed."

There was a horrible, stunned silence among the press. Even the spokesman himself, Colin Breed, looked sheepish - if that's the right word.

Charles Kennedy claimed to be the only party leader to have milked a cow - he didn't explain why this should make anyone want to vote for him

Charles Kennedy had little more success when he claimed to be the only party leader to have milked a cow. He didn't explain why this should make anyone want to vote for him.

Maybe this leaden wit explains why Mr Kennedy and Lord Razzall forgot to invite either of their agriculture experts to speak - which was a little odd, on a day they were supposed to be talking about rural affairs.

What is getting beyond a joke is the Tory reluctance to speak to the media. Once again, there was no press conference this morning, which seems to be going to extreme lengths to avoid my critical comments on their coffee and cakes.

Instead, William Hague invited everybody to think hard about Dover. And once you've done that to turn your mind to his party's policy on asylum and immigration.

This issue produces more heat than any other. Mr Kennedy contributed to the general mood by characterising the Tory approach as vulgar and distasteful.

And Labour managed to maintain that they were sending home more failed asylum applicants than any party had ever done before - and, at the same time, extending Britain's long and proud history of welcoming the oppressed.

Gordon Brown, meanwhile, introduced a brand-new political weapon this morning - the erratum slip.

Gleefully he waved a mischief-making piece of paper to be inserted in the latest campaign document, purporting to be the latest clarification of Oliver Letwin's view of Tory tax-cuts.

And finally - I would like to dissociate myself, and the Tory candidate Nick Serpell - from any reference to the beheading of Charles II. The producer responsible, as Clare English reported on PM, is awaiting summary justice.

Thursday 17th May 2001 - DAY NINE

A rather touching scene marks the start of most campaign days.

At 8.00 am precisely, Charles Kennedy leads a team of three or four onto the platform of his temporary conference centre. (They've hired rooms in a building from which real power was once wielded - in the former headquarters of the Transport Workers Union.)

For the next two minutes - precisely - the party's campaign director, Lord (Tim) Razzall addresses the assembled press, introducing the speakers and outlining what he hopes will be the theme of the day.

Then, and only then, Mr Kennedy moves to the rostrum and starts to speak.

The timing is critical, as he confessed at the first conference of the campaign. He's waiting for Sky News to get through their headlines before crossing over live to hear what he has to say. Is that what they mean by media manipulation?

The role of the media in the election has in many ways been the story of the past 24 hours.

John Prescott's spot of bother in North Wales gained much of its significance by being captured on camera. It gave everyone a license to discuss the affair, though the Guardian still showed traditional journalistic caution with the following caption: 'John Prescott appears to throw a punch at a protestor' under a picture of the ministerial fist resting on the assailant's mouth.

But other public protests have also projected the seething passions of 'the public' into the neat and tidy campaign planning grids of the main parties.

Tony Blair's discussion with Sharron Storer in Birmingham, about the treatment of her partner who's suffering from cancer, was immeasurably more memorable than any number of statistics about waiting lists.

Its impact, however, owed everything to the fact that it was conducted in front of journalists with recording equipment. Sharron Storer, more or less consciously, understood this: she refused all invitations to move indoors, out of sight (and mind).

When the parties are questioned about these matters, most want the media to take a share of the responsibility. You reporters are just as reluctant as we politicians, they say, to leave the ivory towers. We stand or fall together...

So, taking it on the chin as I like to do, (no, not literally, John) I'm hoping for a glimpse of the real world tomorrow. At least, as real as a live internet broadcast based on listeners' questions can be.

Wednesday 16th May 2001 - DAY EIGHT

If the Liberal Democrat manifesto looked like a trade magazine, and the Tories' like a Timeshare brochure, the Labour document reminded me of a full review of Further Education courses in Greater London.

I'm only talking about appearances, obviously. But the effort to distill the juicy bits out of 28,000 words between 11.00 am and lunchtime was a test of our speed-reading.

What was even more disconcerting was Tony Blair's decision to hold his launch-party in Birmingham. One can only imagine the pressure on the catering staff of Virgin Trains, though I suppose some journalists are less fussy about their breakfast than I am.

Those of us stuck in London in the rain had to make do with televised versions of the event.

One intriguing rumour, passed on to the WATO audience by Andrew Marr, was that some reporters had been offered a deal - ask the right question, and you're guaranteed to catch Mr Blair's eye. They'll probably call it the co-operation-for-questions scandal.

Now if it was a decent-cup-of-coffee-for-questions...

We've also seen three miraculous reappearances in the past 24 hours.

One was that chap in a mineshaft in the Mendips. The second was Keith Vaz, the Europe Minister, who was spotted by journalists for the first time in weeks: 'I have come to see the people of Leicester,' he declared to one of them. 'You are a reporter. You are not the people of Leicester'.

And the third was Oliver Letwin. The Tories' treasury spokesman, having been in purdah since his 'anonymous' appearance in the Financial Times on Monday, and his loose talk of £20bn of tax cuts, finally surfaced in a local radio interview.

It looked briefly as though he was going to do an interview for WATO, too. But at the last minute he changed his mind. That mineshaft must suddenly have seemed very cosy after all.

Tuesday 15th May 2001 - DAY SEVEN

Was it a sign of confusion in the party? Or a tactic designed to unsettle journalists?

Either way, anyone wandering through Smith Square early this morning would have witnessed us milling in and out of Central Office, waiting for some unspecified event to take place. At one point, my phone was so confused that it went off inside the X-ray machine.

Suddenly, there was a flurry of activity, involving two senior party figures - Michael Portillo and Andrew Lansley - an undistinguished truck, and a large piece of green tarpaulin.

Clearly the Tories had devised a clever wheeze to distract us from the row over their tax plans.

If so, it was a bold and baffling strategy. Because the poster was on the subject of - tax. Mr Portillo agreed to take a few questions, but conspicuously failed to offer much support to his junior Treasury colleague, Oliver Letwin, who had set the hare running in the first place.

Now Mr Letwin has become one of the unwitting stars of the election. His remarks to the Financial Times - only a little bit anonymous, as it turned out - have allowed Labour to claim that the Tories are ready to slash taxes regardless of the effect on public spending.

The Tories got their own back for our hounding of Mr Letwin by providing me with an apple pastry whose filling slid off onto my tie.

The truth of that claim, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. But Labour's gloating was slightly spiked when one of my WATO colleagues noticed that their 'Wanted' poster for the missing Mr Letwin had a misspelling in embarrassingly large type - 'Wherabouts'.

Incidentally, with all the to-ing and fro-ing, I resorted to a cup of commercial coffee, and very nice it was too.

But the Tories got their own back for our hounding of Mr Letwin by providing me with an apple pastry whose filling slid off onto my tie.

This will not, in any way, affect my reporting of this election.

Monday 14th May 2001 - DAY SIX

Gordon Brown cracked a joke this morning.

Mr Brown's sense of humour is not often on public display, so the joke produced more laughter than perhaps it strictly deserved.

This is how it went. Eddie Mair asked him about the selection of the Tory defector Sean Woodward to fight the old Labour seat of St Helens South. Mr Brown said he was very pleased, and pointed out that it had been a close contest, decided in a second ballot, after a redistribution of votes: 'One of the few times we talk about redistribution,' quipped the Chancellor.

There were jokes at the Liberal Democrat conference, too. Charles Kennedy had to answer a question about the impact of the party's long-cherished proposals to raise income tax, and increase tobacco duties.

Mr Kennedy replied that tobacco taxes were off the agenda. 'Remember we're under new management,' he muttered, looking forward to that first post-conference drag. And beside him the education spokesman Phil Willis chipped in: 'The only difference in those days was that he (Paddy Ashdown) never bought a packet himself.'

Buoyed by all this jocularity, we trooped off to the Tories, to find that nobody had told Michael Ancram and Francis Maude that this was National Smile Week.

In one of the shortest and tersest press briefings to date, they raced their way through a minimum of questions, leaving an aggrieved Jon Snow, among others, growling with discontent.

And a coffee update? The Lib Dems have belied their favourite's spot, I'm afraid to say. And the Tory cup tasted of dish-washer salt. The field is wide open again.

Friday 11th May 2001 - DAY THREE

We've been saying farewell to our West London home.

From Monday, we shake the sand of White City from our shoes, and settle down in SW1 for the duration. Obviously we'll be so busy that we'll hardly notice the difference.

It's on Monday, then, that the great coffee contest should be resolved, when all three main parties hold press conferences back to back. The Liberal Democrats remain 2-1 favourites, after yesterday's watery showing by Labour. The Tories are the dark horses.

Things are always a bit different at Conservative Central Office: in 1997, certainly, they didn't go in for the cool, clinical efficiency on show at Labour's Millbank headquarters.

It could be different this time, I suppose. Although when I picked up my security pass this week, one young staff member was trying to persuade David Dimbleby to accept a pass in the name of his brother, Jonathan. This was not calculated to amuse the BBC's election front-man.

One of the most admirable achievements of the week has been Charles Kennedy's ability to cope with mornings.

The Lib Dems' notoriously late-rising leader has just finished visiting a dozen cities in three days, mostly before lunch. And on all the television clips I saw, he managed to remember not just which airport lounge he'd just reached - but also the names of the local MPs, MEPs, councillors and candidates who joined his press conferences.

Back in London, Labour and the Tories have become embroiled in a bitter and complicated row over taxing and spending. You get the impression that both Gordon Brown and Michael Portillo must be reading the Budget red book in bed.

Both may well be beginning to wish they'd been scheduled - like Charles Kennedy - to fly around the country in the sunshine instead.

Thursday 10th May 2001 - DAY TWO

The relationship between campaigning parties and political journalists is a peculiar one. We rely on one another, but each side reserves the right, at all times, to speak its mind about the other's shortcomings.

So I'm going to be frank. About the coffee, anyway.

This morning it fell to Labour to mount the inaugural election press-conference, the first of some six dozen for me over the next four weeks.

Faced with an array of metal detectors, security guards and ID card-readers to protect against unwanted questioners, those who made it across the Millbank moat had one thing on their minds: how good would the refreshments be?

Last year, the Liberal Democrats boasted the best coffee, and after this morning, I believe they could win the prize again. Labour's brew, served in new red mugs with the rather dismal slogan 'the work goes on', was disappointing - though the Danish pastries went some way to retrieving the situation.

The Tories hired a ballroom with chandeliers and a ceiling-painting of the Battle of Britain - to signify victory against overwhelming odds, perhaps?

And at least in the great game of 'catching the eye of the platform' (the critical eye was that of Margaret Beckett, whose suit-colour matched the mugs), the World at One started well - drawing a strong response on tax from Tony Blair.

No such luck when the Tories launched their Manifesto.

They'd hired a ballroom with chandeliers and a ceiling-painting of the Battle of Britain. (To signify victory against overwhelming odds?) First I arrived too late to sample the coffee, and then William Hague inexplicably failed to spot me waving my microphone at the back of the hall.

There will, of course, be other opportunities to ask my unanswerable question. But the party had better understand that I shall be even more stern than usual in my judgement of Conservative Central Office - and the quality of its coffee.

Wednesday 9th May 2001 - DAY ONE

The World at One is nothing if not adaptable.

Most of the rest of the media world has decided that today is Day One of the election campaign, so we have bowed to the popular will.

Yesterday's diary, therefore, previously known as Day One, has been renamed Day Zero.

For the rest of this week, the World at One remains at its West London headquarters before moving to Westminster for the duration. Even if we'd trans-shipped already, I would have missed the most entertaining moment of the morning, which took place in Edinburgh.

What must have gone through Sir Malcolm Rifkind's mind?

The man charged with reviving Tory fortunes in Scotland was expecting to unveil a poster attacking Tony Blair. Instead, he was presented with an advertisement for Tesco's new retail park. In Stevenage.

It was, confessed Sir Malcolm with all the diplomacy you'd expect of an old Foreign Secretary, really no more than an irritant.

Meanwhile, I found myself interviewing Gordon Brown. Afterwards I reflected that even an economics degree (which I do not have) may not help voters get to the bottom of the row over tax and spending.

Tuesday 8th May 2001 - DAY ZERO

So now it's for real.

Or surreal, some would say, watching a handful of men wearing headphones, sitting at a table on a strip of grass next to a main road, and shouting to make themselves heard over the noise of passing helicopters.

This Monty Pythonesque scene is the World at One's alfresco studio on College Green - just opposite the House of Lords - rolled out at times of high political drama. In terms of atmosphere and ambience it has many advantages, notably the chiming of Big Ben.

But the location is also a prey to unwanted ambient noise, like the Sky TV chopper, following Tony Blair on his drive to the Palace and back. Or the passing fire-engine blaring its way towards Parliament Square. I did my best to weave both interruptions into the programme script.

That's part of the fun of the WATO election experience. When the daily press conferences (Lib Dems 0800 BST, Labour 0845, Tories 0930) get underway on Monday, a review of the coffee and cakes on offer will be a crucial part of our coverage.

I also have a reputation for regular weather reports (especially if I've been drenched between locations). This is not, as some of my colleagues have suggested, a tedious case of presenter-whinging, but an attempt to add colour and verisimilitude to our election reports.

And the best bit so far? Watching Cherie Blair unable to gain entry to her own car outside Number 10.


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