Six days on from the first debate and the Conservatives have still to work out how to handle Nick Clegg’s meteoric rise. They had hoped the Lib Dem surge would prove to be a shooting star; as time passes they fret that, after all those false dawns, this time the Mr Clegg’s party might actually succeed in smashing the political mould.
A recent visitor to the inner sanctum of Tory campaign HQ tells me that “rabbits” and “headlights” were the two words that sprang to mind as he listened to the internal argument about how to react.
On one side, of course, there are those who have always wanted David Cameron to go “negative”. Attack Gordon Brown for being, well, Gordon Brown, they say, and tell the voters that Mr Clegg is an expenses fiddling politician who would sell out to Europe and leave Britain defenceless against the Mullahs by getting rid of the independent nuclear deterrent. Talk about the Big Society if you have to, but don’t bore the voters with all that stuff about having to do its themselves.
Those around Mr Cameron who have laboured mightily to refashion the Tory image into one of a modern, tolerant party freed from its past obsessions see the obvious downside. To brand Mr Clegg a treacherous Euro-federalist in the pay of Brussels would remind the voters of the Tories of old – more determined to bash Europe than concerned about the everyday concerns of ordinary voters. To play dirty, meanwhile, would be to recontaminate the Tories as the “nasty party”. Whatever you think about his policies, Mr Clegg comes across as a nice, moderate sort of chap rather than an unpatriotic extremist.
The outcome? Indecision, according to my informant. Mr Cameron will go on accentuating the positive side of his “change” agenda; others will land low blows when they can. In so far as the second debate is concerned, the Tory leader will attack the Lib Dems on Europe and disarmament, but not so aggressively as to summon up memories of William Hague’s disastrous 2001 election campaign when the country was told that had only days to “save the pound” from Tony Blair’s alleged Eurofanaticism.
Mr Cameron would be wise to be careful. Though the voters are clearly hostile to most things emanating from Brussels, they also don’t like the idea of being in the pocket of Washington – a charge that Mr Clegg will surely make against his two opponents. And in an era of austerity when hospitals and schools face big budget cuts, it is at least debatable whether spending billions to replace Trident is a certain vote-winner.
The Tories, of course, are always left with “Vote Clegg, get Brown” (as opposed to Vote Blair, get Brown at the 2005 election). This may gain some traction, but it risks insulting the intelligence of voters. As, incidentally, does warning that a hung parliament would drive Britain into the hands of the IMF.
And here, I think, lies the real danger for the Conservatives and Labour alike: those determined to wreak revenge on the political establishment may well conclude that the best way to do so is to break the system. Voting Liberal Democrat then becomes a logical as much as an emotional choice.