PAUL Routledge

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The William Hague bus is an altogether more subdued experience than life with new Labour. It's a lot of travel for not very much exposure of the Tory leader--under an hour by my calculation in Blackpool and Llandudno -- and with no clear sense that he is having any impact on the marginals he visits. The bus is an old-fashioned charabanc, with out tables or electric points. True, the food is better, and more copious, than on Tony Blair's battle bus, and the Tories do not frown on alcohol. A small bottle of inferior white or perfectly drinkable Grenache/Merlot is served with the packed lunch.

But despite the forced optimism of the leader, there remains a sense that the Tories are going through the motions. Hague repeats the same speech at every stop, together with his tired joke: "When do you know Tony Blair is telling an

untruth? When his lips move." The hacks -- and there are fewer than on the Blair bus - groan in unison. Interest in the Tory Battle Bus Bingo, which bets on Hague's cliche rate, is listless.

Happily, the security is similarly relaxed. Blair is surrounded by the proverbial ring of steel wherever he goes. The Tory leader moves comfortably without too many minders, and presumably the police have decided he isn't going to be prime minister anyway.

Much has been made of Ffion Hague's Trappist vow of silence on the campaign trail. Too much, it seems. The Tory high command are not so worried about what she might say - she's a bright lass and a former senior civil servant - but the way she would say it. Ffion still has a strong Welsh accent and, mixed with William's nasal tyke twang, it could prove a lethal turn-off for voters. I dunno. They are so far behind in the polls, a bit of hywel might come in handy. By the way, their body language on the road is affectionate and, unlike Blair, they go home to London every night.

At the party's morning press conferences, pressure mounts to get in the first question. John Sergeant of ITN has taken to putting up his hand and pointing to himself while the chairman's introductory remarks are still in full flow. …