In last night’s episode:
Gordon declared his love for Nick; but Nick doesn’t love Gordon and remembers that when he did love Gordon, Gordon didn’t love him. But Nick is quietly flirting with David Miliband and Alan Johnson, who’ve always liked him a bit more, while trying not to make it too obvious what he is up to in case all the people who like him at the moment stop liking him once they find out what he is up to. Also we’re not really that sure that Gordon does love Nick; we think he doesn’t really.
David Cameron is often accused of trying to steal too heavily from the Tony Blair playbook but he’s not the only one harking back to 1997. In that election, the then Tory chairman Brian Mawhinney hired an actor to dress up in chicken suit and follow Tony Blair around to highlight his refusal to take part in a leader’s debate. The confrontation ended when the Daily Mirror hired an actor to dress as a wolf and attack the Tory chicken during one such walkabout. Who says politics has got more juvenile in the last decade?
Anyway Mr Cameron – who probably wishes he had dodged the debate – is now being followed by a Mirror chicken apparently chasing him over unanswered questions. Mr Cameron today finally lost patience with the chicken although in a reasonably controlled and good-humoured way, decapitating the bird or at least ripping off its mask. More amusingly he then challenged the chicken to ask its questions; but of course, the chicken is just some poor bloke in a suit – it didn’t have any questions and looked around rather desperately for its Mirror minder.
David Cameron’s new election broadcast is on the Conservative website. Apparently this was rushed into production and the old one junked so that his Daveness could project a more positive message and reclaim the mantle of the candidate for change.
There’s a touch of a Richard Curtis movie about the clip. There’s Mr Cameron looking unruffled and charming in his Notting Hill back garden. The grass is lush, the sun is shining and there’s a simply super kid’s play area at the back of the shot. I didn’t see Hugh Grant in the background but you feel he was probably inside helping himself to the last brownie. There’s no soundtrack by Wet,Wet, Wet, but Take That’s Gary Barlow was in an earlier Cameron movie.
Nick Clegg has a problem but it’s a nice kind of problem. The Lib Dem leader is enjoying a remarkable poll surge which he needs to defend and enhance. He is unlikely to be troubled by most of the attacks other parties are likely to launch on him, which will seem only to prove his point that the other two are just the two old relics defending the status quo.
But one attack does cause him difficulties and it is no surprise therefore that the Tories are pressing it hard. The “Vote Clegg, Get Brown” line is effective for two reasons. The first is that it could shore up wavering Conservatives and the second is that if it takes root it can undermine the Lib Dem claim to be the true party of change. As I wrote yesterday, the change mantle is the one David Cameron needs to reclaim if he is to win and it is the one he foolishly ceded to Nick Clegg in the debate. The claim that a Lib Dem surge could sustain Mr Brown unless the Labour vote collapses entirely has the added advantage of being true.
As my Alphaville colleagues would say, it’s tin hat time for the Conservatives. You don’t have to believe the huge Lib Dem poll surge in its entirety to know both parties have a big problem. Labour is counting on the Clegg boost doing enough to deny the Tories a majority (and possibly even the largest number of seats) but not becoming so strong as to do real damage to Mr Brown. It is also enjoying the Conservative discomfort and counting on the Cameron campaign self-destructing. This seems understandable but very risky. The Lib Dem surge could leave Mr Brown hanging on but it is surely not something around which to build a strategy.
Mr Cameron has a more fundamental problem. Unlike Mr Brown he was in control of his destiny and needs to be so again if he is to win. He had a simple plan – to persuade voters that he was the change they so desperately want But he has allowed himself to be sidetracked from that message (bleating on about a national insurance contributions rise few understand) and in the TV debate the change mantle was seized by Mr Clegg. Mr Cameron’s team have made the schoolboy error of thinking that winning a media war on NI contributions was the same as winning round voters. It wasn’t.
There is near unanimity that Nick Clegg won the first leaders’ debate – watched by more than 9m people most of whom seemed to stick with it all the way through. Rather harder to gauge is what that victory will mean and how it will alter the dynamic and outcome of the election.
The FT election panel podcast discussed this at length and these are their conclusions:
Some things appear clear still. Gordon Brown had a bad debate. Most polls place him a poor third and his aggressive style didn’t do serious damage to David Cameron but made Mr Brown himself look bad. His contempt for David Cameron was far too visible and did not look attractive.
We don’t normally do free advertising on FT.com but I can’t resist this site offering t-shirts with the undoubted soundbite of the debate.
First thoughts on the debate which was much more lively than many expected:
1) Nick Clegg dominated proceedings and must be held to have been the clear winner in the actual contest. He always had the easiest task and it is no surprise he came out well but I never expected him to be quite such a commanding figure. He was clear, articulate, forceful without being overly aggressive. He seemed relaxed (possibly too much so – I wondered about the hands in the pocket stance) and always spoke directly to the camera.
A cloud of volcanic ash from Iceland is closing Britain’ airports and hogging the news bulletins. It has everything the election lacks – great pictures, a direct and tangible impact on real people, a touch of science and wonderment too it. Small wonder the news organisations are diverted from a campaign which is clearly failing to ignite public interest despite an unclear outcome.
Similar quantities of hot air have been spewed out in advance of tonight’s TV debate. Endless clips of Nixon and Kennedy – have littered our screens (and even some front pages). After months of bigging it up, broadcasters have joined the expectation management game, worrying that perhaps it will be too boring (subtext: we want more fireworks next time – perhaps a panel led by Simon Cowell and a buzzer to shut up the candidates).
Are there any women on any of the main parties’ top teams who do not embarrass the leadership? I only ask because one of the most striking subtexts of this election has been its utter masculinity. It is hard to recall an election in recent times which has been so single-sexed. The only women who we have seen regularly are Sarah Brown and Samantha Cameron. At times it has seemed that this is a contest being held entirely in a monastery – or perhaps the 1920s.
It is not unusual for political parties to have an A-list of people who get to monopolise the airwaves. Come election time the cabinet and shadow cabinet is filled with disgruntled second raters who the party spin machines have concluded do not press the voters’ hot button. But in all previous elections, the parties would not have dreamed of having no women on the A-list. They always managed to find at least one, who dutifully sat in on all press conferences, wearing a bright jacket and was allowed onto Newsnight.
The Independent’s lead story caught my eye this morning. It wasn’t especially surprising but it raised the interesting notion of tactical voting.
The Indy led with a story that Lord Adonis, the widely respected transport secretary (and former FT journalist before his career plummeted downhill!) has called on Lib Dem voters to vote tactically to keep David Cameron out. Well, yes I’m sure he has; it’s the kind of the thing you do if you are a Labour cabinet minister – especially if you are a former member of the SDP and Liberal Democrats, as his Lordship is. Incidentally, Lord Adonis speaks only of seats where a Lib Dem vote could damage Labour. He says nothing about what Labour voters should do in Lib Dem/Conservative marginals. Given his intelligence this may simply come down to practical politics and an assumption that Labour voters will get the message anyway but a true commitment to a joint effort to keep the Tories out requires Labour supporters to vote Lib Dem where they are the main challengers to the Conservatives.
Some years ago – actually nearly 20 – when I was a junior reporter on the Daily Telegraph I was assigned the less-than-plum election job of finding out how celebrities would be voting. It wasn’t very difficult. Each party had someone whose job it was to co-ordinate the celeb endorsements and so it was just a matter of getting the lists and ringing up the named individuals to check they were indeed supporting the party in question (Jeffrey Archer had compiled the Tory list and some of those on it were rather surprised to be accused of backing John Major or at least were reluctant to be identified as such.)