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Thursday May 5 Dorset

Brewing up with Billy Bragg

Reporter to Billy Bragg: “Hello Billy, the locals here in Bridport tell me you’re the man to talk to about tonight’s election.”

Billy Bragg to reporter: “Yeah, I heard you were in the neighbourhood. Why don’t you come round to mine. I’ll put the kettle on. Last house on the coast road.”

An so I find myself Brewing up with Billy Bragg - the title of one of his albums - at his beach house.

It turns out he has brokered a pact between Labour and Lib Dem supporters in Dorset to vote tactically.

”A Lib Dem guy came to see me six months before the election. Labour votes to go to the Lib Dems here in Dorset West, and Lib Dem votes go to Labour in Dorset South to keep the Tories out,” he explains.

The “big ask”, he says, is to get Lib Dems to vote for his man, Labour MP Jim Knight, who took the Tory stronghold of Dorset South by just 153 votes last time.

It is Labour’s most marginal seat, and was Tony Blair’s first stop on the campaign trail. It was also my first stop, and will be my last.

(p.s. Jim Knight held the seat of Dorset South. Tony Blair won his historic third term.)

Tuesday May 3 Penworth 6.30pm

Lennon and McCartney impersonators seemed to abound at the village hall in Penworth, a Lancashire village not much bigger than a mud puddle.

Though to be fair to the songwriting team, the impersonators seemed inspired by the less celebrated phase of the collaboration, when the pair were being driven apart by personal and creative tensions.

There was the soon-to-appear Beatles cover band and there was also the now-familiar Gordon and Tony show.

It was not a fine day for the act, it has to be said.

Gordon was sidelined, while Tony, pressing his hands together in forgiveness, apologised in advance to his audience of mothers for using a question-and-answer session to deliver a blunt political message, and then denounced the Lib Dems for being soft on drugs, building on the attack that appeared earlier under his name in the Sun.

But while previous accusations that Michael Howard has a secret agenda that threatens the economy has resonated with some voters in the north-west, suggestions that the pudgy-faced Charles Kennedy, himself a new father, harbours a secret plan to push heroin on the nation’s youngsters stretched the limits of credibility for many in the audience.

The negative tone of today’s campaign was reminiscent of previous elections run by Alastair Campbell, who has reappeared on the trail in the final days. Today though he walked far behind the two leaders, staying well out of camera shot, preferring the role of tour manager to a dynamic duo, not unlike that played by Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Eoin Callan

Monday May 2

Location: Twydle (pronounced Twiddle).

The hamburgers, hot dogs, and red balloons were free, the special offer was the double-act of Tony Blair and his straight man Gordon Brown.

The pair’s arrival in the village at the mouth of the Thames was heralded by the now-familiar campaign tune of U2’s “It’s a beautiful day”, Mr Blair bounding out like a lead singer, somewhat incongruently, into the sedate mid-afternoon surroundings of the green, while his chancellor followed more tactfully.

Mr Brown was the warm up act – subduing the audience with his bass tones and encyclopaedic-list of the party’s economic achievements, while Mr Blair studied the clouds.

The prime minister opened with a laugh at Mr Brown’s expense. “For all the achievements Gordon mentioned, there is one he didn’t mention,” he said, pausing for effect as the clouds blew over, “the sun comes out for Labour.” And it did, pouring down into the churchyard, the prime minister showing once again that he could not resist messianic imagery.

Mr Blair appeared to acknowledge the difficulties the pair have had in government, but made clear he was making a two-for-one offer.

”Put Gordon Brown in Number 11, myself in Number 10, and a Labour government running the country,” he said.

Voters by now expect such a deal. “Gordon Brown is the man behind Blair. He is the voice telling Mr Blair what to do,” said Louise Lamin, 23, a mother of three, echoing the opening scenes of Anthony Minghella’s video of the Tony and Gordon show.

But while Mr Brown’s road managers appear confident the double-act of the campaign trail should naturally extend to co-operation on the party’s strategy after the election, Mr Blair has given few clues about whether he is truly ready to rule ‘as one’. Solo careers may beckon. Eoin Callan

Thursday April 28 Hove, 6.30pm

The celebrity votes

Labour’s celebrity endorsements in the plush seaside town of Hove put the D-list backers of their Tory rivals in seedy neighbouring Brighton in the shade.

Labour’s Hove candidate claims “strong support” from Norman Cook, the musician better known as Fatboy Slim, and boxer Chris Eubank, who has Labour signs staked on his lawn. Eoin Callan

Wednesday April 27 Brighton, 11:45pm

Pop idols

Candidates are turning up in the strangest places.

The best place on Wednesday night to find Mike Weatherly, the Conservative candidate for Brighton Pavilion, was at a gig in the downstairs bar of the Pavilion Tavern.

The self-described heavy-metal biker, who works for Pop Idol pundit Pete Waterman, says his playlist includes Iron Maiden and Rush, the Canadian band famed for their mullet haircuts.

Despite Mike’s extensive connections in the music scene, the best celebrity endorsement he can point to is David Van Day who, as singer in Dollar, was “big in the eighties” - much like the Tories. Eoin Callan

Monday April 25

Clifton, Bristol 11pm

It is a sign of the importance of the student vote in the marginal constituency of Bristol West that with ten days to go before the polls open, the Liberal Democrat hopeful is sitting on the floor of a student flat drinking beer and eating pizza.

The students have crammed into the flat near Bristol University - after a night watching football, drinking and talking politics with the candidate at the student union - to dissect campaign bunf pinched off their rivals.

For the record, Stephen Williams says he doesn’t inhale, but doesn’t mind if students puff away, as long as they don’t forget to vote for him.

But talk quickly turns to the Conservative candidate’s three daughters, who feature prominently in his leaflets, and the dearth of girls in the Lib Dem club.

Harbourfront, Bristol 3.30pm

In a rare unscripted moment, Tony Blair encountered his first anti-war protesters of the campaign during an abortive walkabout in Bristol’s Harbourside district.

He came to the town’s redeveloped waterfront to talk about the economy, but was confronted as he left the venue by anger about Iraq.

Ruth O’Brien, 25, a community worker from Bristol who joined a small hastily-arranged contingent to confront Mr Blair said: “We need to tackle climate change, not go to war for oil.”

”Why did we go to war?,” Robert Kendall, a gardner, shouted at an approaching Mr Blair, who was quickly steered towards his motorcade by security. Eoin Callan

Friday April 22 18:30

The statement of purpose nailed to the entrance of the Dover immigration removal centre is a model of progressive New Labour values.

“Due recognition will be given at the detention centre to the need for awareness of the particular anxieties to which detained persons may be subject and the sensitivity that this will require especially when handling issues of cultural diversity.”

But the considerate words do not fit neatly with the forbidding appearance of the converted Napolean-era hilltop fortress, with its moat and its high arched wooden gate, or with the scowling face of the tattooed jailer who stares out from behind the black iron bars in the small hatch.

Despite the modern values it espouses, the detention centre appears much like a gaol from days gone by. It could belong to a feudal scene but for the long rolls of razor wire and the newly built gun tower.

Listening to Tony Blair’s speech today in the harbour down below it was hard not to get a similar feeling that behind the sensitive overtures this was an old-fashioned populist crackdown on the vulnerable that has been a feature of politics in Europe for centuries. Eoin Callan

Tuesday April 19 11:45

Michael Howard spent the afternoon at Nottingham University in a discussion forum with local residents over the issue of crime.

Howard cut a sympathetic figure when members of the forum detailed their experienced with violent crime - several of them had even lost loved ones.

“I know about mugging,” Howard said. “My wife Sandra was mugged outside our house in London. My daughter has been mugged. What makes me angry is the view that we have to settle for this.”

However, he came under attack from a black police officer who accused him of using the issues of political correctness and immigration to play on people’s fears.

The officer said: “You use the word ‘political correctness’ in relation to the police service and say it should be stamped out. What you are actually talking about is that a black police officer must shut up and deal with all the racism gong on in the police service. Stop using that language and deal with the issues in a sensible way.” Salamander Davoudi

Tuesday April 19 09:45am

Snappy soundbites and soft questions, if any questions at all, are the order of the day on the Conservative campaign trail. Flattering camera shots and a lingering focus on Mr Howard’s beautiful wife are part of the Tory strategy to replace discussion, argument or heaven forbid any in-depth concentration on the issues at hand.

Today Mr Howard is tackling the hitherto unexplored area of crime.

At 11.45 he is visiting Thorpe Wood Police Station. He will then jump on his chopper and power up to Nottingham where he will talk about crime related issues. Salamander Davoudi

Monday 3:00pm

Michael Howard visits Arkell’s Brewery in north Swindon accompanied by his wife Sandra, a former model. One of the brewery workers stood transfixed as the blonde and leggy Mrs Howard toured the facilities in her chic linen trouser suit. Inhaling deeply on his cigarette and not taking his eyes off Sandra he said: “Jesus Christ. What the bloody hell is she doing with him?” Salamander Davoudi

Monday April 18 10:30am

The election on a plate

10:30am Road Chef. A43 Northamptonshire

Assignment: Colour coordination. Do Liberal Democrats choose marmalade, Labour voters prefer red jam and Conservatives opt for blueberry?

Result: Inconclusive

Oliver, 3, is wearing his family’s political colours all over him. Paul and Claire, the toddler’s 30-something parents, are pouring ketchup on their late morning fry-up.

Paul is a former Conservative voter but like many in the seat of Northampton South, switched to Labour in 1997. The Tories are hoping to win back voters like Paul and have made the constituency a top target. But Paul says he is sticking with Labour. “They have better control of the economy. My personal position has improved in the last eight years under Labour, and I can’t really see Michael Howard as prime minister.”

“I don’t mess about with jam, I just stick to plain butter,” says Ron Kennett, 63, as he butters his six slices of toast and looks up from his Daily Mail. Ron may appear a likely Conservative voter based on his choice of a pro-Tory newspaper and his distain for fancy spreads. But he is voting Labour. “I always have” he says. “On the whole the country is pretty well off, and I don’t trust the other bunch.”

Mark, 33, is drinking Coca Cola and eating a pie for breakfast. He says he has never voted and doesn’t plan to. In fact, though he is slightly shy about saying so, he supports the Green party, but doesn’t feel his vote would make a difference. Eoin Callan

Howard’s men in black

Clad in black from head to toe with the words “Conservative” branded on their backs in bold white letters, Michael Howard’s travelling team is an extraordinary sight to behold.

Like something from “The Matrix”, these dour-faced men and women would be intimidating if it weren’t for the fact that many of them look like they have just finished their A-levels.

“What kind of amateurish circus is this?” remarked a well-seasoned American journalist struggling to comprehend how the leader of the opposition party in the UK came to be surrounded by such a motley crew.

From a distance the aides could be mistaken for the minders of a second-rate LA rap star. Up close and personal the image these uniforms create has rather unfortunate connotations. Salamander Davoudi

Thursday April 14

Celebrity endorsement time and FT.com’s favourite quote today. Noel Gallagher, leading light of Oasis and well-known Labour supporter, has just commented on an unintended consequence of a Tory victory.

“Another reason to vote Labour is, if you don’t, and the Conservatives get in, Phil Collins is threatening to come back and live here. And let’s face it, none of us want that.” Darren Dodd

Wednesday April 13 9pm

Mmmm. A colleague has just pointed out that our picture on FT.com of Blair holding out his little red book has the ‘d’ of “Forward” obscured by the PM’s finger... Darren Dodd

Wednesday April 13 1pm

Gordon has a gag. Hard to spot, because of his dour delivery, but you can tell he is chuckling inside. Every time a reporter asks awkward questions about his tax and spending plans, Gordon pounces: “Well, as you know from reading our Budget...” And every time the reporter slinks back in their seat. At the party’s manifesto launch he went as close to slapstick as a Scots Presbyterian gets, reaching under his podium and whipping out a hidden copy of the full 291-page tome, to the horror of his accuser. Eoin Callan

Wednesday April 13 midday

Quiet at the back

The leadership rivals to Gordon Brown gave themselves away today. Jack Straw and Alan Milburn were the only ones - out of the 20 cabinet members present - leaning forward and nodding eagerly when the leader began talking about his succession during the Labour manifesto launch.

The manifesto itself takes the form of a little red book, a format pioneered by Mao and an odd choice for a party so keen to shed its socialist roots. Eoin Callan

Tuesday April 12 10:30am

We’ve just noticed the odds being quoted on Charles Kennedy becoming prime minister are now at 100/1. That doesn’t sound too bad, except for the fact his newborn son is coming in at 100/1 to be the next PM too.... Darren Dodd

Tuesday April 12 10am

Tony and Cherie’s marriage is on the rocks. You heard it here first. I have no basis for this claim, other than that out on the campaign trail, every time Mr Blair is casting around for a way to describe his relationships - with the electorate or with Gordon - he reaches for the metaphor of a troubled marriage. Surely this is a tell-tale sign.

I think others have noticed too. Shelley Rubenstein, a psychologist, shared a platform with Mr Blair last night in Oldham. She flirted shamelessly with the prime minister. Eoin Callan

Monday April 12 8pm

Tony Blair’s worst enemy is back on the campaign trail. No, not Gordon Brown. He is here too. I mean Tony’s smug smile. In the dying days of the 2001 campaign, a desperate Conservative party sent out messages urging supporters to wipe the smile off Tony’s face. This time around the prime minister has studiously avoided appearing to take voters for granted.

During the campaign’s opening stages he seemed genuinely nervous at times, and ostensibly humble. But he has now found his stride. His speeches are more free flowing and he’s more animated. He’s approaching voters boldly, not afraid to risk a personal encounter with a member of the public whose political persuasion is unknown.

At the Airbus factory in Broughton this morning, he sparked a round of merciless ribbing of a young assembly line worker, whose diagonal mohawk outdid even David Beckham ‘s style experiments. No doubt the youngster will be mocked by his colleagues for years to come. Mr Blair’s handlers however seem to be frowning every time he smiles. Eoin Callan

Monday April 11 1pm

Elvis has left the building

The control freakery of Labour’s press handlers is contagious. “It’s a shambles,” declared the Airbus press officer hysterically, when workers and press at the aircraft company’s factory strayed a few feet from their appointed position during a visit by Tony Blair. The poor woman seemed close to tears trying to tame the pack. But she quickly learned from her Labour counterparts: lie.

”We told them he’d left the building,” she said after dispersing workers back to the assembly line and herding most of the press off the premises. But she came unstuck when Mr Blair was drowned out during an interview with a few hand-picked broadcasters by the deafening din of cranes and pounding metal as the workers she ordered back to the assembly line resumed their toil.

Sunday April 10 10:30am

The day started with gunshots.

Tony Blair was due to arrive in Sedgefield to be formally adopted as the Labour candidate for his constituency.

Reporter to newsdesk: “Just heard what sounded awfully like gunshots outside the window. At least two calibres of weapon involved. There was a short burst of three shots, followed by two shots, and answered by another three shots from a different gun. Going to check it out.”

Reporter to self: “Hmmmm, maybe this assignment won’t last as long as I thought. I wonder if the hotel would mind if I took their comfy slippers back with me to London.”

Reporter to newsdesk: “Gun shots investigated. Local gun club nearby. Apparently clay pigeon shooting very popular round these parts.” Eoin Callan

Thursday April 7 7:30pm

I have covered a few hundred miles already today, having trailed Tony Blair to the far-flung island of Portland, which sits at the end of a causeway in the Atlantic. I’ve talked to the locals who met Mr Blair, stood in the spot overlooking the harbour where he made his speech, shared jokes about his performance with other journalists and onlookers. I’ve even read and re-read the text of his remarks.

But I haven’t actually set eyes on the man. Is this what the next month on the campaign trail holds? The lesson for today, for those of us in the media who may have doubted Labour strategists, is that the party really does intend to bypass the national media, cutting us out of the loop and going straight to local media. Eoin Callan

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