This time everything has felt rather déjà vu. The polls have been remarkably similar to those of '97, with Labour in the high 40s, the Tories at around 30% and the Liberal Democrats around 17%. (The results of the vote in '97 were: Labour 44%, Conservatives 31% and Liberal Democrats 17%). New Labour, meanwhile, is no longer new and doesn't offer the piquancy of the unknown. Labour has been in power for four years, it has a mixed record, and is not expected to provide many surprises when it takes office, as appears inevitable, on June 8. The only excitement seems to be in predictions that the Tories, in a reversal of 1992, will do much worse than the polls say. The speculation is on who will replace William Hague as leader.
Although the leaders have manically driven and flown around the country campaigning, the journalists in pursuit of them on press buses have seemed more dutiful than excited. To enliven the tedium of long journeys with little opportunity for much real journalistic coverage, media on both the Labour and Tory buses played a bingo game. This involved picking slips out of a hat filled with Blair's and Hague's oft-repeated phrases, with scoring based on which of the phrases popped up on the day.
Rory Bremner, an impressionist and comedian, certainly perked up one of the Hague trips. Bremner, who was writing about the election for the Sunday Telegraph but was banned from the Labour press bus on the grounds that he was not really a journalist his TV impressions of Blair are rather cutting sat in front of me in the coach. Hague kept popping out of Bremner's mouth, his voice and mannerisms so perfect one wondered whether Hague in fact hadn't somehow slipped in beside Bremner. The local press clustered around the comedian at a stop in a Portsmouth shopping precinct, where Hague spoke to local shoppers. It was Bremner they wanted for quotes while passerbys asked for his signature. No wonder Blair refused to have him around.
At the same precinct, Crusty the Clown apparently hired by a tabloid tried to get close to Hague, presumably to give the newspaper a photograph with a "two clowns" caption. But Crusty was determinedly blocked off by former Olympic runner Sebastian Coe, now Hague's right-hand man.
There were other diversions: although I missed Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's left jab at a protestor in Wales, who threw an egg at him, I did catch the male streaker who jumped on the Lib Dem's final rally platform wearing only a party hat.
Any diversions were welcome, particularly when it came to covering the Blair campaign. The Labour bus was half blacked out by party propaganda stuck to the outside of the windows, so that it was hard for half the journalists to see where they were going. The effect was claustrophobic and the tight control exerted by Labour minders equally so. Journalists were endlessly chivied around, cordoned off, and told where they could or could not stand. After a day of this tight shepherding, an Australian reporter covering Blair said that in his country journalists would have rioted. The British journalists tended to cynicism and jokes.