Alastair Campbell

Jim Pickard

A colleague was surprised to see Alastair Campbell, former New Labour spindoctor, on the plane back from Astana earlier this week. They both took the Wednesday flight from the Kazakhstan capital to Vienna before transferring to London.

We have written before that Tony Blair has been out to Astana a few times since leaving office. For those who are not familiar with the Central Asian country, it has been criticised in the past for its lack of human rights, as Alex Barker quoted the US state department in a recent blog. 

Jim Pickard

Interesting to see that John Prescott now says he was “nervous” about the intelligence that provided the basis for the Iraq invasion.

On the basis of the Alastair Campbell diaries, “JP” – far from expressing nerves about the war - played an enforcer role in making sure that the cabinet knuckled down behind Tony Blair. 

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.