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« How liberal are the Liberal Democrats? | Main | Ashes to ashes - our holiday hell »
Sunday
Apr182010

Class of '97 - Tony Blair and the Tory Chicken

"A dolphin has been following House of Commons speaker John Bercow on his campaign trail to mock his expenses ‘flipping’", Bucks Free Press

During the 1997 campaign my old friend Gary Ling was part of a similar stunt involving a man dressed as a chicken. At the time I was living in Edinburgh and Gary was press officer for the Scottish Conservative party. A few years later I asked him to write an article about The Chicken for Freedom Today, The Freedom Association magazine that I edited.

It still makes me laugh so I thought I would share it with you. Note the reference to Tony Blair refusing to get involved in a televised debate with the prime minister, John Major. Blair wasn't stupid. As the frontrunner in the '97 campaign he had everything to lose and very little to gain. A bit like David Cameron, in fact.

CHICKEN RUN by Gary Ling

PERHAPS the most lasting memory of the Tories' 1997 election campaign was the slogan 'New Labour, New Danger'. I don't know how many millions of pounds it cost to think it up but it got the campaign off to a poor start from which the party never recovered. Indeed, it is indicative of the effectiveness of the campaign as a whole that my most memorable experience as press officer for the Scottish Tory party was the visit to Edinburgh of the Tory Chicken.

For those of you who neither remember nor care, the role of The Chicken was to highlight the fact that [Opposition leader] Tony Blair had refused to debate, head-to-head, with [Conservative leader] John Major. Tory strategists had assumed that the prime minister would whip his opponent in a televised encounter and Labour spin doctors must have shared this analysis. They saw no advantage in putting Blair head-to-head with Major, hence The Chicken.

When the call came from London that I was to receive and activate The Chicken north of the border it was quite a relief. The Scottish Conservative party's election campaign had been consistently undermined by bickering among senior Cabinet ministers in London on the issue of Europe and further blighted by having to respond to a blizzard of press releases from the Scottish National Party on the delineation of the continental shelf and the share of oil wealth that would allegedly accrue to an independent Scotland.

Notoriety

The Chicken's alter ego was an out-of-work actor called Noel who had already achieved some notoriety after being kidnapped by Labour's rival Teddy Bear and held for ransom. We met, as arranged, at Edinburgh Airport and set off for the city centre hotel where Tony Blair was to take part in a photo call in the main bar.

Entering the building via different entrances, we rendezvoused with other members of the Tory team in a room on the fifth floor. As Noel changed into his chicken suit I sprang my surprise. On the way to the airport I had picked up a kilt. For his visit to Scotland the Tory Chicken would become the Tory Tartan Chicken!

As we waited for Blair to arrive we planned our attack in detail and covered every contingency. I positioned a member of our team on the first floor fire escape with a good view of the back entrance with instructions to call when the Labour Battle Bus pulled up with Blair aboard. The bus was late and waiting for the call was agonising, but when it came not even the SAS could have been better prepared.

Ran

Down the fire escape we ran, taking the stairs two at a time - only to stop dead in our tracks when we got to the bottom, turned the corner ... and realised that we were in full view of the car park and back entrance as Blair, his minders and hangers on were entering the hotel.

No time for decorum. We pushed The Chicken into a corner and camouflaged him as best we could. Easier said than done, of course, because the hotel suddenly became very busy as the big event approached. On more than one occasion journalists were just inches from standing on The Chicken's foot. Luckily these newshounds couldn't find a feather in a chicken coop and he went undetected.

When finally we got the nod that the photo call was about to start, my admiration for Noel went sky high. Springing to life (not easy when you're wearing a baking hot chicken suit and a kilt!), he joined me near the entrance to the lounge bar where Blair was preparing to pull a pint.

Strutted

To this day I remember counting to three, and in we marched. What an entrance! Sticking close to me, The Chicken strutted towards the melee surrounding the Labour leader who adopted his usual cheesy grin as he faced the cameramen.

Too late, Labour minders and Blair babes saw what we were up to and moved to block us from view. I grabbed Noel from behind and lifted him as high as I could. I knew immediately that we'd scored a direct hit because a great roar of laughter went up from the ranks of the assembled media.

On the TV news that night I had my soundbite plus some fantastic footage. Oblivious to what was going on behind him, Tony Blair - our future prime minister - could be seen pulling a pint and over his right shoulder, high above the crowd of grey Labour suits, was a triumphant Tory Tartan Chicken.

The Conservatives may have lost an election, but you should have seen that Chicken run!

The author of this article was press officer for the Scottish Conservative party in the 1997 general election. The Tories went on to lose not only that election but also the 2001 and 2005 elections. Nothing to do with The Chicken, of course ...

Additional reading:
The Tory chicken loses its head
Was there more than one Tory chicken?

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