THE debate over the historic referendum on a regional assembly for the North-East yesterday descended into a battle between a large rat and an inflatable white elephant.

Yes 4 The North-East yesterday sent the rat, armed with a one-way railway ticket back to London, to track down what it says are the southern-based spin doctors behind the North-East Says No campaign.

The stunt ended on Palace Green, when the 8ft rat confronted No's inflatable white elephant in front of Durham Cathedral.

After weeks of serious debate and fairly civilised argument, the exchanges between the Yes and No campaigns have become increasingly heated over the past few days, culminating in yesterday's stunt -which came the day after an exclusive poll in The Northern Echo showed the No campaign had a seven-point lead.

Yes 4 The North-East said the rat had been chosen to symbolise the Rather Arrogant Toff Southerners, who they said were masterminding a campaign to dupe North-East people on the cost of an elected regional assembly.

Campaign director Ross Forbes said: "It's a shame we had to stoop to this, but inflatable animals seem to be the flavour of the campaign.

"Let's face it, the No campaign's political spin doctors could not care less about the North-East.

"They sneered at suggestions that a regional assembly should subsidise public transport for pensioners and did not even have anyone running their office in Durham this morning.

"They will be back on the first flight to London as soon as our referendum is over. At the moment, they are making up figures about costs and new buildings to frighten the people of the region to vote against their better interests."

Yes 4 The North East said its opponents have made up figures to frighten the electorate into voting No.

Pro-assembly campaigners said a Yes vote would lead to 500 fewer politicians in the region and a saving of up to £124m over a decade because of the reorganisation of councils, which would accompany a vote for an assembly.

However, North East Says No spokesman Graham Robb declined to be drawn on the issue and dismissed the stunt.

He said: "The rat is a splendid creature that has obviously decided to desert the Yes campaign's sinking ship when it saw the opinion poll showing that they were losing the argument.

"The fact is that people can see this assembly for what it is -an expensive white elephant."

Meanwhile, the North-East No campaign director Neil Herron said: "It is clear from the fact the Yes Campaign is now reduced to attacking the messengers rather than our message that they are desperately trying to shift the spotlight from their own wafer-thin arguments."