A man wearing a white suit suddenly appeared on the lawn outside Parliament yesterday.

He had a rosette on his lapel and was holding a placard which said: "Clean up politics".

The television cameras crowded round and for a split second everyone was very excited.

Surely, he must be campaigning against sleaze. "At last," we all cried. "Something interesting has happened."

Alas this was not the case. Rather than being the new Martin Bell, he was mimicking him - to try and sell some sponges.

Rumour had it that he found two buyers in a matter of minutes, William Hague and Michael Portillo.

They were forced to absorb so much bad news yesterday that they certainly needed a good sponge.

It kicked off with the latest opinion poll showing Labour had extended its lead by six points to 19 points - which would deliver a thumping 267-seat majority.

Shortly afterwards, the perjury trial of former party vice-chairman Lord Archer got under way at the Old Bailey.

And then former Tory minister John Lee added insult to injury by joining the Liberal Democrats.

Mr Lee, a former aide to infamous love-rat Cecil Parkinson, lost his seat in 1992. A Tory spokesman said: "Our response is 'Who?'"

But the Liberal Democrats, who are fast gaining ground on William Hague, thought it was nice.

Like all good sponges, the Tories still say they can clean up on June 7.

Asked if a rout would be bad for democracy, Shadow Chancellor Michael Portillo said: "We are not anticipating a landslide - but if we get one so be it."

They even tried landing some punches of their own by having a thinly-veiled dig at Thumper Prescott.

Mr Hague unveiled a poster which showed a clenched fist with a knuckle-duster bearing the word "Tax".

It read: "Labour will hit you hard."

But with only a few rounds of this rather dull bout left, they have got a hell of a lot of points to make up.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy best summed up the mood of the day, albeit in a slightly peculiar fashion. He said: "People did feel that William Hague was not just standing at the end of the gangplank but also doing his own sawing behind him.

"But I don't think that will save him from the sharks circling."

Updated: 16:41 Thursday, May 31, 2001