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Monday, 14 May, 2001, 12:09 GMT 13:09 UK

Chicken tikka Tories

Mark Mardell

After the first round of daily news conferences I have to conclude that the Conservatives have yet again spiced up the campaign but failed to offer any real meat.

More of that later.

A spirit of carnival descends on Westminster for the general election and the early morning news conferences are as much a chance for reporters to grandstand as for the parties to get their views across.

At the moment the great internal battle is within, as they say, Another Broadcasting Organisation.


" There was journalistic fury that the Conservatives had a truncated nine minutes of questions "
A senior correspondent is very proud that he has been allowed the use of a posh limo to ferry him from news conference to news conference, to get the best seat and ask the first question.

Two of his colleagues have retaliated by getting those little silvery scooters and nipping ahead.

We at the BBC rely on shoe leather to get us there and loud voices to get our questions in.

Grabbing the agenda

This morning saw the start of the full campaign, with three early morning news conferences from each of the major parties.

They are each trying to grab our attention and the agenda.

The prize is for one party to come up with something that commands everyone's attention and forces the other parties on to their ground.

So by tonight's TV news, by tomorrow's newspapers, what will be the headline?

Will it be the Lib Dems' smaller class sizes, Labour's business-friendly policies or the Conservatives' claims that the European Union will put our petrol prices up?

Probably none of the above. They don't have enough merit to get our juices flowing, to ignite the debate.

Awkward questions

But news conferences are also a chance to get our questions in.

Mainly of course for our vanity, but also to get the senior politicians to answer the more awkward questions flying around.

So there was journalistic fury that the Conservatives had a truncated nine minutes of questions.

A suspicion is growing, that there are some questions they don't want to answer about their manifesto and spending plans.
" The Conservatives, who we know are above reproach in their commitment to a multicultural, multi-ethnic society, were offering chicken tikka masala pasties "

I asked Francis Maude how many new detention centres they would build and how much it would cost.

This would have been quite clever of me, had I not nicked the question off my old colleague Jeremy Paxman, who asked another senior Tory the same question on Newsnight four days ago.

David Willetts could not answer him then, and Francis Maude could not answer me on Monday.

Does the party leader know the answer? I can't tell you.

Smiling Hague

Although Mr Hague was due to answer questions in public shortly, by Monday morning we hadn't seen anything of him since Saturday.

Or to be more precise we had seen TV shots of him sitting in the back of a car, smiling.

As I went in to the Conservative news conference I saw Mr Hague. He was in the back of the car, and he was smiling.

Who says pictures don't tell the true story? The enigmatic Greta Garbo approach will soon wear thin and if he wants to maintain momentum he also has to start giving some answers.

The Conservative conference was not only the shortest, but the most curious in the all-important sense of breakfast.

The Liberal Democrats had Danish pastry - very pro-European.

Labour had big Labour mugs of tea or coffee, just the type that its leader and Alastair Campbell love to clutch in a matey, man-of-the-people, sort of way.

But the Conservatives, who we know are above reproach in their commitment to a multicultural, multi-ethnic society, were offering chicken tikka masala pasties.

I did take a bite. It was the best chicken tikka masala pasty I have tasted. Ever. And as a politician might proclaim, I can say that honestly, hand on my heart.

But, unlike the news conference, it was rather too meaty for that time in the morning.



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