Major tests the waters of Bath

21st March 1997 at 00:00
Chris Patten's old retainers rallied to welcome the Tories at their spring central council meeting. Biddy Passmore reports.

Tory party research suggests the Prime Minister is seen by the voters as a Hob Nob: a straightforward, crunchy kind of biscuit. Tony Blair, by contrast, conjures up the more pretentious Bath Oliver.

The Hob Nob was in the native city of the Oliver last weekend to launch his campaign. Some 2,000 Tory activists had gathered there to cheer on Mr Major in this hotbed of liberalism, where Chris Patten lost the seat at the last election to Don Foster, the Liberal Democrats' education spokesman.

Bath looked spectacular in the spring sunshine. So did Norma in a shocking pink suit. And her husband looked relaxed and cheerful, well suited by an intimate hall where he could develop a rapport with his audience and time his jokes well. Only his tendency to overdo the ad-libbing undermined some of the effect.

John Major, man of the people, was his theme. Conservatism wasn't just for "the lucky, the fortunate, the able, the self-confident". It was for those who didn't have the best education, a decent home, or who didn't live in a safe neighbourhood.

"I know them," he said, and, using a ploy Tony Blair cannot use, he added: "I come from them I And I long to see them too have some of the finer things in life".

His audience loved it. Mostly at, or near, pension age themselves, they lapped up his pledges on pensions and savings and the National Health Service. "You cannot provide compassion without cash," he said. "Hear, hear" came the loudly intoned response, as if in church.

On education, Mr Major had no new policy announcements for his audience. But he repeated his pledge of a guarantee of standards and made a good knockabout attack on Labour-controlled local authorities "like Islington, Hackney, Haringey" that had "failed and failed and failed".

Referring to Tony Blair's remark that his passion was "education, education, education", the Prime Minister asked, "What has he ever done about these deplorable Labour councils? I Nothing, nothing, nothing."

"Nothing," he went on, breaking into the loud applause, "but turn the car key and drive away to another borough and another school."

The Conservatives, he said, would not pass by on the other side. "We will go into those education authorities. We will examine them. And where they are failing, we will take their powers from them - in the interests of the education of our children."

After that, and a well-delivered passage comparing Labour to an inexperienced flight crew ("We're so new none of us have flown before, except on a television simulator"), Mr Major was home and dry. He was greeted with a standing ovation, foot-stomping, several choruses of Land of Hope and Glory, three cheers. Norma joined him on the stage and hugged and waved radiantly, then party chairman Brian Mawhinney. The three of them together looked like a liquorice allsort, two dark suits with a bright pink middle. Cabinet ministers Stephen Dorrell, Michael Howard and William Waldegrave clapped and looked enthusiastic. An old lady dabbed at tears behind her specs.

"How d'you think that'll be written up?" asked a Tory party activist from the East Midlands, sidling up for a chat as the Majors made a triumphal circuit of the conference floor. "I think it answered a lot of the points made to me by thirty and forty-somethings who think it's time for a change."

A primary teacher in Cambridgeshire, he supported the primary league tables and thought even some reluctant colleagues could now see their point (his own school had done well). He deplored as an "act of spite" the decision by Lincolnshire, now under LibLab control, to stop paying for places at fee-paying schools in his home town of Stamford.

"Mind you," he confided, "what I think is that Stamford needs a good comprehensive school, but I have to be careful where I say that", and he scuttled off like the White Rabbit.

In the foyer, Tory ladies described the speech to each other as "incredible". In the dance hall, normally the scene of ballroom dancing classes, hundreds of party members munched their way through bridge rolls, chicken legs and eclairs, with plates of cheese and crudites on the side. At one table, a lady with a perm sat engrossed in an article in Socialist Worker headed "This is how to fight".

Outside, a small, but noisy group from Socialist Worker advised passers-by: "Sack John Major, not our teachers". A rich-looking, silver-haired Tory MP in pinstripes felt moved to engage in a debate on his party's education policy. "But look, we've got a higher proportion of our young people going to university than ever before," he began.

An indecent number of police outside the Pump Room signalled that the Prime Minister was lunching within. Soon he emerged, Norma on his arm, to press the flesh. Of course, a Bath crowd on a beautiful spring day contains a fair share of tourists. But even people who weren't foreign seemed genuinely delighted to see him, seizing him by the hand, grinning like idiots. "I don't believe it!" shrieked one, who had presumably wandered by from Mars.

Slowly, the Tories' Strongest Suit worked his way through the throng. Then he and his entourage reached the fleet of waiting black cars, and sped off. There were only two days to go before he went to the palace.

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