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25 April 2005

Groundhog day with Tony

Election: the week - On tour with Blair, and we're feeling good: lives are being saved and we're rid

By Zoe Williams

This is my first trip anywhere, ever, with the Labour Party. I’ve been to Genoa with the Socialist Alliance, and Glastonbury with the Nicaraguan Health Fund. (That was a long time ago – I don’t know if it still exists. The fund, I mean, not Nicaragua.) I’ve been on top of a bus with Respect, and visited Peckham Library with the Real Labour Party (or whatever it was called). So anyway, I know what lefties are like on tour, but naturally, this gives me no clue at all about what the Labour Party is like.

Outside the first press conference of the day, there’s a protesting man dressed as a large rodent. The outsized teeth shout “badger” to me, but his sign clarifies things. It says: “Groundhog day. We’ve been here before.” Underneath that, the word “conservative” floats, its significance opaque. Does it mean “vote Conservative”? Does it mean “I’m a very conservative groundhog”? Surely, groundhogs would be expected to like groundhog day, and Conservatives would like being anywhere they’ve been before? Well, we’re still within spitting distance of Westminster. Wait until we get to Milton Keynes; then things will start to make sense.

It’s breast cancer day: new proposals are being unveiled to make sure every woman with a referral, even a non-urgent one, will be seen within a fortnight and treated within a month. In fact, these proposals also cover new bowel-cancer screenings, and rightly so, since just because men are more dynamic and such doesn’t make their tumours any more biddable. But naturally at this stage in the political calendar, if it ain’t pink, it ain’t worth the ink. (I’m using this space to audition as slogan writer for Ukip, by the way.)

So, we’re bussed to our first cancer unit, only the bus is in fact a helicopter. Blair is in a different chopper altogether, fortunately. Otherwise he would have caught me jacking up in the toilet. (Just kidding! Helicopters don’t have toilets!) We touch down and whizz through, past the excellent facilities, into the cabbagey canteen, where some Macmillan nurses await the Prime Minister to tell him what a good job he’s doing. Macmillan nurses hold a special place in the nation’s heart, for reasons I just can’t fathom. In my experience, they are just like ordinary nurses, except they grab patients’ hands and pummel them, without receiving any indication that this might be appropriate, and try to bully people two days away from death into having a sodding bed bath. But that’s just a bugbear of mine.

We all leave feeling warmed: Blair because everyone is so nice to him, the rest of us because we’re getting another helicopter. Blair, incidentally, has the most astonishing tan. He has been quiz-zed about it more than once, and has consistently replied that he got it in his back garden (mean temperature that weekend: 17 degrees). It strikes me that if cancer’s your agenda for the day, maybe it’s time to cease pretending you were out trying to catch ultraviolet rays, and just admit that it came from a bottle like everyone else’s. And while we’re on the subject of small ironies, I need to run you through the snack bar of the battle-transport: some Twixes; some Boosts (an underrated confectionery bar, if you ask me); some penny sweets that no longer exist in real life (“fruit salads”, Blackjacks); and some Kronenbourg. The only reason there aren’t any Turkey Twizzlers is that there’s no microwave. Jamie Oliver would have a field day.

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On to Redditch, and Cherie has beaten us to it. She’s discussing treatments with a group of breast-cancer sufferers, who all look inspirationally great and talk with engaging frankness about their treatment. Blair says later, apropos the 280,000 extra screenings that have happened since April 2001, “There are literally lives being saved as a result of the money we’re investing in the health service.” Having seen these women, there is absolutely no scepticism or background hostility you can bring to bear on the man. All you can think is: “Good. Well done.” Cherie is wearing the most extraordinary colour. It’s a kind of house purple, specifically designed to clash horribly with the neighbouring school. I thought I’d throw that in, in case you thought I’d gone soft and/or serious.

For his one-to-one interviews, Blair is framed by a light-box featuring X-rays of brain tumours. I’m not sure what the message is there, but I feel certain there is one. You can’t be surrounded by that many press officers, without one of them putting some thought into details like that. Blair really is the most frustrating man to interview. He’ll only ever talk about one thing. Quiz him on anything else, and he’ll say: “That’s an issue . . . However, I think what people are really interested in is this . . .” If you had a boyfriend who did that (“Yes, my eyeing up birds is an issue . . . However, I think what people are really interested in is what’s for dinner”), you’d dump him. We might yet dump Blair. But it’s been a feel-good day, what with the transport and the lives that have been saved. I’m afraid I end it still thinking: “Good. Well done.”

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