Lansons Conversations

Day 9 – Good day – bad day

When the election was called the days and weeks spread far ahead but already some key stages have been and gone. We’ve seen the slogans, we’ve had the first party broadcasts and we’ve now had the manifestos. The politicians’ bags of tricks are fast emptying but this election is a tough gig with no sign that the audience is yet impressed. The pressure, therefore, as we reach another campaign milestone tomorrow, the leaders’ debates, is immense. More than half of the public – some 54 per cent – plan to watch the first televised leaders’ debate tomorrow evening with 42 per cent expecting David Cameron to win the debate against 22 per cent for Gordon Brown. Such high viewing figures would be extraordinary but the widespread assumption of a Cameron victory may well be exaggerated too. Having been Chancellor and Prime Minister and close to key international developments for thirteen years Brown’s mastery of detail and substance may expose Cameron. Explicitly or implicitly Brown needs to get across to voters that the debate and the election isn’t another edition of Britain’s got talent. That’s not to say that Cameron doesn’t do detail. He does. But however articulate he is tomorrow, it’s difficult to see how he can compete on experience and on gravitas. The worst response to this would be for Cameron to spend all of today honing the punch lines. We know from their dispatch box encounters that Cameron must tread warily in his natural inclination to personal attacks on Brown and being a little too slick for many. Cameron and Brown can use neither kid gloves with Clegg nor be seen to be patronising or dismissive. This is even more the case since Clegg has performed well in the campaign so far and held his own against Jeremy Paxman on Monday. Clegg needs to carve out distinctive ground and not act as umpire between the two major leaders. He will benefit in any case from being seen as the compromise, moderate option however simplistic and banal a conclusion that may be.       With Cameron and Brown blocking out significant chunks of today for messaging and rehearsing, the campaign today has been a little quieter. Clegg’s manifesto launch lacked the glitz and choreography of Battersea and Birmingham. It was another good day for self styled ‘elephant man’ Vince Cable who said only he wants to talk about the deficit – the elephant in the room. Less good for the Lib Dems was the building momentum to push Clegg into a corner on hung parliament tactics. Messaging has been all over the place about what in the Lib Dem mind constitutes a mandate for Labour or the Conservatives. More votes? More seats? Today Clegg said it meant both and that he wouldn’t play speculative games about other hypothetical results. He became tetchy, supposedly because it is the umpteenth time he has answered the question. More likely he is tetchy because he knows the position can’t necessarily hold until polling day and could be exposed as early as tomorrow night in the live debates.  A sleepless night lies ahead for the three leaders.