The UK General Election Campaign of 2010 formally began on the 5th April 2010 when the Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that there would indeed be a parliamentary election on the 6th May.
Where the Parties Started
Although the Conservative Party had enjoyed a double digit lead in the opinion polls for much of the period since the time of the election that never was in the autumn of 2007, that lead narrowed in January 2010. This led to a great deal of speculation, not to say excitement in some quarters that the result of the election would result in a 'hung parliament' with the Liberal Democrats holding the balance of power.
Nevertheless the Conservative Party had gained some momentum during March over their announcement that they would reverse the Government's proposed increases in National Insurance rates, a proposal that was soon openly supported by a succession of business leaders, whilst long Easter weekend produced a string of stories that were unfavourable to the Labour cause. There was a revival of the Baby P Scandal as it was alleged that Ed Balls had 'fixed' an Ofsted report, an exclusive in The Independent that claimed that "Brown misled public over Haiti single", as well as the Labour poster campaign that backfired within hours of its launch. As a result the opinion polls showed a Conservative ahead of their Labour rivals by a margin of between 4% and 10%, which was something of a novel experience for the Tories, as it was the first time since the days of Margaret Thatcher that they had started a General Election campaign with a lead in the opinion polls.
The Campaign Kicks Off
The Conservative Party had decided to campaign under the election slogan of 'Vote for change' which was, of course, stunningly unoriginal to the same extent as the Labour Party slogan of 'A future fair for all' was stunningly incomprehensible. Now presumably what the Labour Party meant was 'A future, fair, for all', as opposed to some kind of 'future fair' complete with rollercoasters, or indeed some kind of advance warning of an undignified post-election scramble for government hand-outs. But then again, perhaps the confusion was a deliberate attempt to broaden the party's appeal. The Liberal Democrats decided to campaign on the promise of 'Change That Works For You. Building A Fairer Britain', a statement which appeared to be nothing more than an attempt to combine the Conservative and Labour slogans into one all-embracing mantra that would offend no one.
As far as David Cameron was concerned, it was "the most important election for a generation and it comes down to this: you don't have to put up with another five years of Gordon Brown". For the Labour Party, Gordon Brown insisted that Britain was "on the road to recovery and nothing we do should put that recovery at risk". Such as, for example, not voting for him, whilst Nick Clegg insisted that this was "not a two-horse race between the two old parties" and that people had "a real choice this time" between the "old politics of the two old parties" and the "something new, something different" offered by his party. Which was of course what the Liberal Democrats always said when faced with an election. In other words it promised to be a perfectly standard election campaign featuring an Opposition which argued that it was 'time for a change', a Government which said 'no it isn't, the other lot will only make a mess of things', with the Liberal Democrats claiming to be neither of the above and quite 'different' to either.
Many journalists however chose to put forward the notion that this would be the nation's first 'digital election', given the prevalence of so-called social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter as well as the ubiquitous blogging phenomenon. It certainly was from the point of the media who began running 'live blogs' of the campaign from the moment the election was formally called. Although quite why anyone would want to read a detailed minute by minute record of the doings and sayings of sundry politicians and journalists that would last for a whole month was a question they did not feel obliged to answer. However as Iain Dale suggested, perhaps the real question was whether anyone would say something sufficiently stupid online to make it into the mainstream media and cause themselves or their party some damage. One Stuart MacLennan the Labour candidate for Moray duly obliged as the Scottish Sun ran a story on his Twitter postings under the headline 'Twitter Twerp's Twisted Tweets' on the 9th April. Within hours of publication MacLennan was sacked as a candidate and suspended from membership of the Labour Party, and so became recognised as the campaign's first 'Twitter suicide'.
What Ever You Do Don't Mention The Deficit
The most exciting news of the first day of the campaign was that the Conservatives had forced the Government to abandon their proposed 10% tax hike on cider in the parliamentary 'wash up' of outstanding business. The early days were however dominated by arguments over the economy and a re-ignition of the National Insurance Row, as more company bosses came forward to support the Conservative proposal and Gordon Brown repeated the claim that they had all been "deceived", and that the proposed expenditure cuts that would finance this tax reduction were "fantasy savings". Although as David Cameron pointed out, "I don't think it's particularly challenging to ask government to save £1 out of every £100 it spends". And put in that way, it didn't seem that hard a task to accomplish. This was followed by an argument over whose plans would cost the most jobs, although when it came down to it, all three main parties conceded that future cuts in both public sector spending and employment were inevitable.
All of which left everyone with a sense of déjà vu, as Labour was left defending the same 'tax and spend' battleground that New Labour had supposedly rejected all those years ago, and most would have agreed with the assessment of The Times that the Conservatives had "won the first week of the election campaign", although the opinion polls gave a rather mixed picture and showed the Conservative lead between 3% and 10%.
On Monday 12th April Labour launched its election manifesto at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. This weighty 76 page document featured a cover graphic that appeared to have been recycled from a party poster dating back to 1923, and certainly displayed a certain 'Soviet chic' that wasn't to everyone's taste. The Conservatives complained that using a hospital for electioneering purposes was in direct contravention of Cabinet Office rules; Labour responded by pointing out that it was a PFI project and the hospital was as yet unopened and so the building remained in the hands of a private firm and this wasn't a 'government building'.
Nevertheless the publication of the Labour manifesto failed to generate much excitement. The Times called it the "pauper's manifesto" as the Daily Telegraph dismissed it as "threadbare manifesto". In its leading article The Independent described it as "less than convincing" and that its proposals were all "rather vague and too late in the day to be very credible", whilst over at The Guardian, a certain Julian Glover wasn't impressed either, and described it as "warm, statist mush", and even the official Guardian line was that it was worthy but bereft of any new ideas.
On Tuesday, 13th April it was the Conservative Party's turn as they launched their 'Invitation to Join the Government of Britain' which promised "people power, not state power". Promoted as a "plan to change Britain for the better", the Conservative manifesto weighed in at an even more mighty 130 pages. The Independent thought it was a "compelling critique of Labour's top-down and statist approach to the delivery of public services" but "convincing only in parts". Writing in the Telegraph, Simon Heffer dismissed it as "largely irrelevant to the crisis facing Britain", but then he disapproved of the "social democratic bent of this Conservative Party" and still thought that "Labour is a busted flush". The Sun approved under the headline 'Cam's the Man', The Times described it as "thought-provoking, imaginative and intelligent" but with "little coherent to offer", whilst the Financial Times believed that it fell "short of a decisive plan to address the fiscal deficit".
On Wednesday it was the turn of the Liberal Democrats, although the papers were rather less inclined to devote the same level of scrutiny to their manifesto. The Independent for one, devoted its leading article to promoting the cause of a Hung Parliament and had rather less to say about the detail of Lib Dem policy, whilst strangely enough having spent the previous week or so rubbishing the Conservative's National Insurance plans as "school boy economics" (Vince Cable) and "voodoo economics" (Nick Clegg) their manifesto promptly proclaimed that the increase in National Insurance Contributions was both "damaging" and "unfair tax" and that they "would seek to reverse it" when "circumstances allowed". (Presumably after they'd worked out where to find the £6 billion worth of cuts to fund it.)
Plaid Cymru issued its manifesto which called more powers for the Welsh Assembly and an extra £300 million to spend, as they promised to "protect the communities of Wales against the London cuts", and the Scottish Nationalist Party promised more or less the same only for Scotland this time. The United Kingdom Independence Party won the prize for straightforward honesty as they declared, "We are skint. We need some massive cutbacks in the public sector."
Now the Liberal Democrats claimed that they had at least mentioned the deficit as made some practical suggestion as to how it might be reduced, although as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, reducing the ongoing annual deficit was one thing, dealing with the consequences of all the prior deficits was something else entirely. Since the nation would be emerging from the crisis with some £1400 billion's worth of debt compared to the £600 billion it had to begin with, it might have been worth mentioning that, at the very least, it would cost the country some £30 to £40 billion a year to pay the interest bill on this debt. It has to be said that neither the Liberal Democrats, nor Labour, nor the Conservative Party were particularly forthcoming in spelling out precisely where they believed the spending cuts would be made.
On the following day a certain amount of excitement was generated by the news that one Iain Watt had stuck up a Conservative poster in his front garden, which would normally have been a matter unworthy of public comment, except that he happened to be Gordon Brown's next door neighbour. Apart from this exciting development the expectation was that the day's news would be dominated by eager anticipation of the first of the three televised debates between the three party leaders to be broadcast that evening on ITV, although as it turned out, the media were far more interested in the fact that an eruption in the Eyjafjallajoekull area of Iceland had created a 'giant' cloud of volcanic ash which had closed every airport in the country. A General Election was one thing; the fact that the nation had just become one large no-fly zone was obviously far more important, particularly since it left thousands of Easter holidaymakers stranded at the mercy of Spanish hoteliers and the like.
In the event the debate was a far less sterile affair than was expected, although nobody made a decent joke, and nobody made a serious error, and Gordon Brown distinguished himself by saying "I agree with Nick" as many times as he could. Indeed as both Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell pushed the same line that Nick Clegg had 'won on style' to anyone who would listen it all seemed to be part of a deliberate plan to boost the Liberal Democrats at the expense of the Conservatives in the hope that this would at least deny the latter an outright victory; a line that was dutifully followed by the odd journalist here and there who duly reported that "If the third party does respectably, it will stop the Tories capturing seats in the South-west and South, which would suit Labour nicely."
Nevertheless The Sun thought that Brown produced a "dismal performance", whilst the Daily Mirror thought that Brown had crushed a "naive David Cameron", although those individuals who posted comments on the Mirror website thought the paper was quite insane for saying so. Naturally, all the parties concerned thought their man 'won', although the general consensus followed the Mandelson-Campbell line and that Clegg had come out best, with the Independent running the excited headline 'Clegg smashes two-party system'. The pound duly came under pressure as the markets considered the increased likelihood of a hung parliament as elsewhere both Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Nationalist Party complained that no one had mentioned their respective nations during the debate. Mind you, according to the opinion pollsters an audience of around twenty million people was expected, therefore "putting the debate on a par with an England football international or an X Factor final" as The Times put it. However as it turned out the average audience was 9.4 million, which must have meant that half of those polled had misled the pollsters as to their true intentions.
A Small Earthquake in Britain Too
As the Icelandic ash cloud kept the airports shut and the World Health Organisation issued a warning to "stay inside" if the ash looked like settling on the ground, Britain suffered its own small earthquake on the Friday when a ComRes poll taken after the debate put the Liberal Democrats on 35%, just one point behind the Conservatives, with Labour well behind in third place on 24%. William Hill immediately slashed the odds on an outright Liberal Democrat victory from 300/1 to 25/1. (Perhaps it should have occurred to someone in the Labour Party that arguing that they were just the same as the Liberal Democrats might well have the opposite result to the one intended.) Of course, few of the papers felt obliged to explain that the Comres poll was a poll of 4,000 voters who had "watched the programme", but never mind, a YouGov poll which appeared on the Saturday showed the Liberal Democrats on 30%, behind the Conservatives with 33% and Labour on 28%, which might not have been quite so spectacular, but confirmed the trend. All of which meant that Gordon Brown had now achieved the distinction of being the first government leader to secure third place during the course of a General Election campaign and, if nothing else, showed the power of good old-fashioned television to 'engage' with the voters and rather undermined the argument put forward by the 'digital election' enthusiasts.
Naturally David Cameron launched a "fightback" against the "surging Lib Dems", and claimed that a hung parliament would hinder rather than promote "real change", whilst elsewhere it was suggested that the Liberal Democrat 'surge' would result in their policies being subjected to extra scrutiny. (It being a general rule of British politics that no one paid that much attention to Liberal Democrat policy on the grounds that there was no chance that any of them would ever be implemented.) For his part Gordon Brown went back on the campaign trail to Brighton where he announced that it was his intention to perform some "charity and voluntary work" in the future, before he corrected himself and said that of course he had "an important job" to do in the meantime. He also said that he would "like to write a book", apparently unaware of the fact that he had already 'written' a number of books, and had indeed been the nation's most prolific 'author' in 2007.
An interview with Brown appeared in the Sunday Telegraph where he continued with his theme that Labour and the Liberal Democrats had similar policies about the scale of political reform, although he also appeared on the BBC to say that the "Liberal Democrats have got to be exposed". Never mind, Nick Clegg would have been no doubt pleased that a poll in the Sunday Times showed him as the most popular party leader since Winston Churchill. (Except that, of course, Churchill had a losing record as party leader, having lost two out of three elections, and came second in the popular vote even in the one election that he 'won'.) He might well have been more pleased at the news that a ComRes poll put the Conservatives on 31%, the Lib Dems on 29% and Labour on 27%, whilst a BPIX poll even showed the Liberal Democrats top with 32%, one point ahead of the Conservatives on 31%, with Labour trailing third on 28%.
After having the weekend to digest this outbreak of Cleggmania, on the 19th April Labour continued to insist that people should vote for them on the grounds that "Nick Clegg is refusing to rule out a back room deal to put the Tories into power"; but then again, the Conservatives were claiming that 'If you vote for Clegg, you get Brown'. On the Tuesday, the Volcano Chaos continued with suggestions there was another Icelandic ash cloud on its way as more opinion polls were produced to confirm that the Liberal Democrats were enjoying an increased level of support.
On the 21st April an interview with Gordon Brown appeared in The Independent in which he called for a "progressive alliance" between Labour and the Liberal Democrats and insisted that Labour was "the only party committed to a referendum" on electoral reform. In the circumstances Brown would no doubt have been disappointed by the views expressed by Clegg in an interview with the Daily Telegraph published that very same day. Clegg insisted that Brown had "systematically blocked, and personally blocked, political reform", described Brown as "a desperate politician", and said that as far as Brown's commitment to reform was concerned "I just do not believe him". He also said that it "would be preposterous for Gordon Brown to end up like some squatter in No 10 because of some constitutional nicety". A remark that the Daily Mail for one, interpreted this as meaning that, his price for supporting Labour in the event of a hung Parliament would be Brown's resignation, although it probably meant nothing more than he would find it difficult to work with Gordon Brown.
Elsewhere The Times claimed an exclusive over the story 'Labour at odds over reform deal' as it contrasted the difference between Alan Johnson, who had been promoting the prospect of Labour forming a coalition government, and Ed Balls, who was of the opinion that "Coalition politics is not the British way of doing government". (The latter thereby displaying his profound ignorance of British political history.) The Guardian claimed that were "high-level cabinet disagreements" over the "conduct of Labour's campaign" as it wrote of the "concern in some circles" that the campaign was not "highlighting fairness, families or women's issues" but was rather being "dominated by men over 50 warning about the risk to the economic recovery from the Conservatives". Apparently the Guardian got this information from a "cabinet source"; probably Harriet Harman, being the cabinet member most likely to complain about the domination of 'men over 50'.
The Volcano Ash crisis continued with the news that there were an estimated 120,000 Britons stranded abroad. The Government duly mobilised the Royal Navy, in the form of HMS Ark Royal and HMS Ocean, to get people home, although as it turned out the ships "circled uselessly in the Channel", as David Miliband seemed to think that the "great British spirit" was sufficient in itself to deal with the problem.
On the 22nd April there was the news that unemployment had risen to sixteen year high of 2.5 million as a batch of opinion polls were released which showed a rather confusing difference of opinion. ComRes had the Conservatives on 35%, with Labour and the Lib Dems both on 26%, YouGov had the Lib Dems on 34%, with the Conservatives at 31% and Labour on 26%, whilst Populus had the Conservatives on 32%, the Lib Dems on 31% and Labour at 28%. The only reliable conclusion appeared to be that Labour wasn't winning and that the Liberal Democrats might possibly on the verge of their long awaited breakthrough.
That Nice Mr Clegg
In the wake of his triumphal performance in the first debate, Clegg appeared at a meeting to address Cardiff students on the Monday and a politics student named Chris Williams took the opportunity to ask, "You went to private school and then went on to Cambridge. So what really makes you any different from David Cameron?" Clegg didn't really have an answer to that question; in fact, he got rather annoyed when asked such things. Granted, with its current boarding fees set at £28,344 a year, Westminster School was £500 cheaper than Eton College (current boarding fees £28,851), but it was very much in the same league, and Clegg's background was pretty much identical to that of Cameron's, with the possible exception that Cameron did not have a teenage conviction for arson. It was therefore one of the wonders of the modern age that one opinion poll found that 78% of people thought that Cameron was 'posh' compared to only 4% for Clegg.
Naturally Clegg's leap into national prominence meant that many in the media decided to have closer look at the Liberal Democrats, and more than one felt obliged to remind everyone that the Liberal Democrat campaign at the last election had largely been finances by a £2.4 million donation obtained from a convicted fraudster named Michael Brown, and that one Paul Strasburger, a "millionaire in Bath", who paid some of Brown's bail money (and presumably lost it, since Brown fled bail) had donated more than £552,000 to the Liberal Democrats since 2005.
On the 22nd April the Daily Telegraph led with a story of how Nick Clegg had received regular monthly donations from "three senior businessmen" during 2006 which had been paid directly into his personal bank account. (The Telegraph knew this because it had the copies of Clegg's statements that he'd submitted to support his expense claims and had clearly been back to have another look.) The Daily Mail had also been busy and had found an article that Clegg had written for the Guardian back in 2002 in which he said that the British suffered from "delusions of grandeur" and possessed a "misplaced sense of superiority" as a result of being on the winning side in World War II and that "we need to be put back in our place". Naturally the Mail decided to push this story to the limits and ran it under the headline 'Clegg in Nazi slur on UK'.
also got hold of a document, prepared by Hilary Stephenson
, who was Clegg's campaigns and elections director, which provided Lib Dem MPs with helpful and detailed instructions on how to exploit the 'grey areas' in the rules on MPs' expenses in order to further the party's interests. According to Ms Stephenson there was "lots of scope" - so be imaginative!" as the Mail
also highlighted certain aspects of a work entitled the Liberal Democrat Best Practice Manual, which the party might well have wished had been rewritten in the light of the MPs' Expenses Scandal. Naturally there were complaints that Clegg was the subject of a "smear campaign", and that the whole thing had been orchestrated by Conservative "high command", although as Andrew Gilligan
pointed out on the Daily Telegraph
website, the Lib Dems where no strangers to such tactics themselves and went it came down to it were "consistently more unscrupulous and poisonous than the other parties" when it came to smearing their political opponents. (As anyone who had actually read a Liberal Democrat election leaflet could confirm.)
Off in The Independent, Clegg indicated that his party would demand a fully proportional voting system for Westminster elections as the price of support. (Presumably subject to the consent of the British people duly expressed in a referendum on the subject.) He also couldn't resist another shot at Gordon Brown whom he referred to as being "very much part of the problem, not the solution", and described Brown's recent conversion to the cause of the alternative vote system as "a miserable little compromise thrashed out by the Labour Party". None of which was anywhere near as interesting as the fact that Unilever were taking legal action against the British National Party to stop it from featuring a jar of Marmite in a party broadcast.
Seconds Out, Round Two
Thursday 22nd April was the date for the second scheduled leaders' debate. Broadcast by Sky TV, it was watched by some four million people and was regarded as a more 'confrontational' than the previous affair, with both Cameron and Brown doing their best to deflate the Clegg bubble. 'David Cameron wins with passion' was the verdict of the Daily Express, as The Sun heralded 'The Cam back' and told us how Cameron had "sank a pint of Guinness" to celebrate "bouncing back in style" and that he'd came out "streets ahead". Both the Daily Mail - 'Comeback kid Cameron counter attacks: Tory leader hits back in bid to slow Clegg bandwagon' - and the Daily Telegraph - 'Cameron fights back in second leaders' debate' - also chose to follow the 'Cameron comeback theme'. The Independent however said that 'Cameron & Brown get tough, but Clegg stands firm' as the Guardian announced that 'Clegg scores narrow victory in second TV debate' in response to the results of its own ICM snap poll, although the results produced by both YouGov and Populus confirmed the view of The Times; 'Cameron nicks it in second televised debate'. Nevertheless all agreed that Brown had come third again, except of course in that alternative reality known as Mirrorland.
Perhaps the highlight of the second debate was when Cameron accused Brown of spreading "fears and smears" by claiming that the Conservatives would abolish such things as free bus passes, TV licences and prescriptions for pensioners. At the time Brown could only say "I've not authorised any leaflets like that" and so the row escalated on the Friday as the Conservatives produced a number of leaflets and letters produced by Labour candidates that included examples of "Labour's shameful lies". Peter Mandelson defended such claims on the grounds that the Conservative manifesto did not include a commitment to retain such things as free eye tests and prescriptions for the elderly, but then again the Labour Party had failed to commit itself to retaining the prohibition against the slave trade, and no one had yet accused them of being pro-slavery. As it was, there wasn't anything particularly new here. Labour had been peddling such claims every since the campaign began, and there was even a claim that they'd sent a targeted mail shot to likely cancer sufferers telling them that they'd die if they voted Conservative.
The 23rd April was also the day that saw the release of figures which showed that the British economy had grown by a mere 0.2% in the first quarter of the year, which was a little on the disappointing side, and was either a 'blow to Brown' or further evidence of how the recovery was so fragile that it was clearly too dangerous to allow the Conservatives into Government.
Time For Plan B
On the 24th April the Times reported that Labour were going to change their election strategy, since Brown now feared that he was being left behind as the election developed into a two-horse race between Cameron and Clegg. Apparently Brown would now embark on what was described as "an onslaught" on the alleged "costs of a Tory government to the economy and services", comprising of "a series of speeches on the economy" in order to "crystallise and sharpen the choice", whilst according to the BBC Brown would be making an effort to "meet more ordinary voters rather than party supporters, following the criticisms from rank-and-file members".
As James Kirkup noted in the Telegraph, so far the Labour campaign had left Brown looking like a "hostage being moved from safe house to safe house under close guard", whilst in the Independent Steve Richards likened Brown to "King Lear wandering from place to place with his entourage". As it was, evidence of what Brown meant by his promise to "up the tempo" of the campaign soon appeared when an Elvis impersonator joined him on stage at an election rally to sing The Wonder of You.
Clegg was featured in the Sunday Times under the headline 'I will not prop up Gordon Brown' in which he repeated his statement about the undesirability of "Gordon Brown squatting in No 10" and described Labour as "increasingly irrelevant". Clegg also made an unequivocal statement as to his intentions in the event of a Hung Parliament; "I tie my hands in the following sense: that the party that has more votes and seats, but doesn't get an absolute majority - I support them". The Sunday Times was not however, entirely convinced of the merits of the Liberal Democrats, as its leading article ran under the headline 'Dangers lurk behind the Nick Clegg charm' and referred to the "several ill-conceived ideas" and "alarming policies" that his party promoted.
Meanwhile over at The Observer, David Cameron was apparently saying that he "would be prepared to discuss the Lib Dems' central demand for electoral reform", as the Independent on Sunday gave the floor to Gordon Brown who was insisting that the election remained "wide open" and that he would "fight for everything" as he invoked the almighty against Conservative policy on inheritance tax. The Sunday Telegraph led on the story 'Labour civil war as support slumps in new poll' as it reported on the in-fighting within the Labour camp with a "senior source" informing them that Peter Mandelson had told Harriet Harman to "shut up" and that "he didn't want to hear from her again". The Mail on Sunday further noted that Ed Balls had been "added to the media team" as a "senior Labour MP" had told them that the "Brownites" were "stacking ten loads of shit on Mandelson" and blaming him for the failure of their campaign so far. The Times also claimed that there was "mounting evidence" that Labour was ready to dump Brown immediately after the election, although this likely meant nothing more than they had spoken to someone in the party that didn't like Brown.
The weekend also saw a raft of opinion polls published. A poll from YouGov had the Liberal Democrats in second place on 28%, with the Conservatives on 35% and Labour trailing in third place on 27%. A similar picture was shown by ICM which had Conservatives 35%, Liberal Democrats 31% and Labour 26%; ComRes with Conservatives 34%, Lib Dems 29%, and Labour 28%; and BPIX with Conservatives 34%, Liberal Democrats 30% and Labour 6%. Only Ipsos-Mori broke the trend with Conservatives 36%, Labour 30%, Liberal Democrats 23%. With five out of six polls showing Liberal Democrats in second place, the 'Big Story' was that Labour might well come third in the election.
Taking his cue from this information Clegg duly put in an appearance on the Andrew Marr Show on the Sunday in which he pronounced that the "a party which has come third ... has lost the election spectacularly" and so "cannot then lay claim to providing the Prime Minister of this country". According to The Guardian on the following Monday, 'Nick Clegg goes public on coalition and looks to Tories', as they interpreted it as meaning that "he would speak to Cameron first about minority government", although others thought that what Clegg had in mind was that he would take office as Prime Minister in any Labour-Lib Dem coalition. Elsewhere both The Independent - 'Splits emerge in Labour's election strategy' and The Times 'Labour in turmoil as pressure on Brown grows' focussed on comments made by Alan Johnson that suggested that he might be the person best suited to lead the Labour Party's post-election talks with Nick Clegg. As it was Clegg became even more explicit regarding his intentions on the Monday during the course of the Monday, as he said that he would work with the "man from the Moon but not Gordon Brown".
The Daily Telegraph drew attention to 'David Cameron's smash and grab raid on Labour' with the claim that the Conservatives had identified twenty new Labour seats that had "unexpectedly become winnable following the rise of the Liberal Democrats", as the news emerged that the Labour Party had suspended John Cowan, their candidate for South East Cambridgeshire, after revelations in the Sunday Telegraph regarding some of his online activities. To even the score a bit, on the Tuesday one Philip Lardner, the Conservative candidate for North Ayrshire and Arran, was also sacked after posting comments on his website that referred to homosexuality as being "somewhere between unfortunate and simply wrong" which was, of course, not quite the attitude one was supposed to take in the modern Conservative party. That same day Clegg put in an appearance on BBC Radio 5's Live Breakfast programme to deny that it would be problem for him to "work with" Brown, and said that it was "for people to decide how the government should be formed", as if he'd suddenly realised that it might have been a bit presumptuous of him to have assumed that he would be in a position to dictate the seating arrangements in the Cabinet room.
The following Wednesday, the 28th April soon became dominated by Gordon Brown's condemnation of a sixty-six year old former council worker from Rochdale as "just a sort of bigoted woman that said she used to be Labour". Known as Bigotgate, the resulting scandal quite dominated the media for the next twenty-fours, and turned pensioner Gillian Duffy into a household name overnight. In so doing, Brown lost the vote of at least one lifelong Labour supporter, who subsequently decided that she would not now be voting in the upcoming General Election, and quite possibly thousands upon thousands more, in what was quite possibly the biggest gaffe ever committed by a British politician.
It was the perfect end to what had been a painful week for Labour. One Labour candidate named Kathryn Smith, had already been arrested on suspicion of drink-driving after crashing her car into a roundabout in Dartford on the Monday evening, whilst another Kerry McCarthy, the candidate for Bristol East and the party's so-called 'Twitter Tsar', was under investigation after revealing details of postal votes in her constituency. (On Twitter of course.) There was the Elvis embarrassment and the great Peppa Pig disaster, when the party issued a press release under the title 'Peppa Pig Accepts Labour Invitation to Join Visit to Children's Centre', only for Peppa Pig to say 'No I didn't' on the following day, thereby causing a great deal of distress and disappointment to countless numbers of Peppa Pig fans. Granted most of these were aged five and under, and thus ineligible to vote, but they same could not be said of their mothers. Or as one anonymous "junior official" in the Labour Party was quoted as saying, "I feel like a dog that can't be kicked any more".
Seconds Out, Round Three
Whilst the front pages of the morning's newspapers were devoted to the ins and outs of Bigotgate, the 29th April was the day of the third and last of the televised leaders' debates. This time round it was the BBC's turn to host the event which attracted an audience of some eight million viewers. Of course, after the disaster of Bigotgate, this debate assumed an even greater importance for Brown, as it was now seen as his last chance to shine. The Labour camp certainly gave the impression that now was the time for their man's 'substance' to triumph over Cameron and Clegg's 'style', although as it turned out Brown simply looked tired and beaten and delivered his least convincing performance so far. For his part Clegg often sounded rather vague, was once reprimanded by David Dimbleby for the sin of repetition, and at one point claimed that he was "not advocating joining the euro", which was strange, because that was exactly his party's policy. Brown was often at the other extreme as he switched into 'tractor statistics' mode, whilst he felt obliged to admit that "if things stay as they are David Cameron, perhaps supported by Nick Clegg, will be in office".
The result was that even The Guardian was obliged to proclaim 'Cameron on top as PM fails to alter campaign's course' as Martin Kettle decided that "Cameron passed his job interview". The Times had 'Brown fails to make inroads in partisan debate', largely because its snap poll showed Clegg and Cameron in a tie, with Brown trailing behind, which also explained why The Independent ran with the headline, Cameron and Clegg are hailed the winners of final leaders' debate', a curious choice given that their report then began with the words "David Cameron emerged as the winner ...". The Daily Telegraph however felt that 'David Cameron saves his best performance for last' as he "delivered his most effective denunciation of Labour's 13 years in power while articulating a powerful vision for Britain". The Daily Mail proclaimed 'Victory for Cameron in final TV debate' as Cameron "landed blows on an exhausted-looking Gordon Brown", and the Daily Express wrote approvingly of the "passionate onslaught" that Cameron had launched on the "Lib Dem obsession with selling Britain out to Europe". The Sun's headline was 'Scrambled Clegg and toast .. but Cam's full of beans' as it described Cameron as the "real PM in waiting" and even away in Mirrorland the best they could do was 'David Cameron plays slippery salesman' as the paper admitted that Brown was "fighting for his political life after his bigot gaffe".
It was all beginning to look bad for Labour, and then on the Friday Gordon Brown joined no less than nine of his Cabinet ministers at a car park in Hockley, Birmingham for the launch of yet another poster campaign, when an individual named Omed Rashid, and described as "an unemployed Labour supporter", drove a green Volkswagen Golf straight into a bus shelter on a traffic island only yards away. Somehow the conjunction of the words "car crash" and "Labour Party campaign" proved an irresistible temptation for the headline writers, although according to the Daily Mail the Golf has been "side-swiped by a bin-lorry whose passengers were shouting anti-Labour abuse", so it was quite likely just another evil plot hatched up by Rupert Murdoch.
Never mind, the Labour Party still had time to unleash their secret weapon in the form of Tony Blair, who was back from his safari holiday, and insisted that Labour still had "every chance of succeeding", as David Cameron launched his 'contract with the voters' at Landau Forte College in Derby which contained sixteen pledges on various topics such as cleaning up politics, cutting Whitehall waste and protecting the NHS, which sounded very much like the sort of thing that Mr Blair used to do back in the day.
The Last Weekend
On the Friday evening The Guardian posted its Saturday editorial on its website, although at 2,000 words it was more of an essay than an editorial. The Guardian was of the opinion that "Cameron offers a new and welcome Toryism" although it still didn't like it that much, and felt that "it is hard to feel enthusiasm" for five more years of Labour. Since the "Liberal Democrats have for some time most closely matched our own priorities and instincts" the "answer is clear and proud" by which presumably they meant; 'Vote Lib Dem' given that the headline for the piece was 'The liberal moment has come'. This proved to be the taster for the paper's interview with Nick Clegg which included his grandiose claim that "we have taken Labour's place in UK politics" as he set a target of gaining more than 100 extra seats and rejected the idea of tactical voting to 'keep out the Tories'. Or as The Independent put it 'Clegg scents Labour blood in battle for second' highlighting the Liberal Democrat's goal of now squeezing the Labour vote. Off in The Times, Tony Blair did his best to downplay the situation as he claimed that a vote for Clegg was "not a serious thing", although Clegg himself dismissed this as a sign of desperation, and even accused Labour of "wheeling out the golden oldies".
The Times also took the opportunity on the Saturday to nail its colours to the mast as it concluded in its editorial that "It is time, once again, to vote Conservative." And just in case anyone missed it, the Times also reminded everyone that this was the first time in eighteen years that it had endorsed the Conservative Party at a General Election. (Having previously been staunchly in the New Labour camp.) On the Sunday, The Observer came out in favour of the Liberal Democrats, despite featuring an 'exclusive interview' with Gordon Brown in which he "launched a scathing personal attack" on Nick Clegg, "ridiculing his policies and likening him to a TV gameshow host". The Sunday Times decided that the "Tories deserve a chance to govern", the Mail On Sunday felt that "Cameron and the Conservatives should be trusted with your vote", and the Sunday Telegraph concluded that the "best choice for Britain is a Conservative government with a strong majority".
The Independent on Sunday meanwhile told its readers that if they were "convinced by the Tories", they should give Cameron their "considered support", failing which they should vote tactically to ensure a hung parliament" as this would result in electoral reform, which of itself would result in "a better, fairer, greener Britain". Curiously enough The People newspaper took the same line as The Independent on Sunday and also called for a hung parliament, despite being a Mirror Group newspaper, which given that both The Sun and the News of the World had already declared for the Conservatives, left the Daily and Sunday Mirror as the only two national newspapers likely to remain in the Labour camp.
Of course, cynics might well have argued that the reason that the Independent on Sunday was calling for a hung parliament was that they now believed that otherwise the Conservatives would win, as their latest ComRes poll showed the Conservatives on 38%, ten points ahead of Labour on 28%, with the Liberal Democrats now back at 25%. In other polls the Conservative lead varied between 4% and 7%, with the main difference being which of the other two were in second place.
The Race to the Finish
After everybody had read the Sunday papers there was at least the realisation that we were all on the final stretch and that it would soon all be over and that normal service would soon resume.
The Liberal Democrats continued to insist that it was a "two-horse race" between themselves and the Conservatives, as the Conservative Party claimed that they now possessed the 'momentum' and in any case it was "for the public to decide how many horses there are". Gordon Brown insisted that he would "fight to the finish" as he aimed to visit no less than ten different London constituencies on the Sunday; a hectic pace that no doubt left him no time to converse with any 'ordinary voters' he might come across in the process. Indeed it was noted that Brown's public appearances were now being carefully controlled and that he only spoke to pre-vetted supporters who could be relied upon to ask pre-prepared questions. In the wake of Bigotgate the mood within the Labour Party appeared to be one of quite acceptance of impending defeat coupled with the hope that Brown wouldn't make things any worse in the meantime. Or as one cabinet minister told the Financial Times; "Gordon isn't going to make things any better for us. He's just got to make sure he doesn't make things any worse."
Tuesday 4th May 2010 turned out to be 'Tactical Voting Day' as various senior Labour politicians such as Ed Balls and Peter Hain began making increasing calls for people (i.e. Liberal Democrats, or anyone else quite frankly) to vote tactically in favour of their party in order to prevent the Conservatives winning, and even dropping broad hints that Labour supporters should think about voting Liberal Democrat. Although when pressed they would categorically deny that they had suggested that anyone should vote for anyone other than a Labour candidate, since doing so would have been regarded as a criminal act within the Labour Party. The Guardian had already produced its own 'Guide to Tactical Voting' and the Daily Mirror now devoted its front page on the Tuesday to the promotion of its own tactical voting guide under the headline 'How To Stop Him' plastered over a photograph of David Cameron's face partly obscured by a large red cross. As it was the Mirror guide contained nothing more than a list of seventy-one "key marginal seats" with appropriate suggestions as to the most likely anti-Conservative challenger.
Ken Clarke said that Balls was "obviously getting very worried", and perhaps Balls should have noted that Guido Fawkes had for some time been calling on Lib Dems to vote tactically for the Conservative candidate in order to remove the decidedly illiberal Ed Balls from Parliament. For the Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown said that Labour was being "patronising" and "desperate" and Ed Davey said that "It's almost as if they have given up". All of which was possibly true, but a trifle hypocritical given that persuading Labour and Conservatives supporters to vote tactically for them to keep the other lot out had been a main stay of their party's campaign from its inception. Brown then went and spoilt it all by saying that a "vote for the Liberals may allow the Conservatives to be elected" and to insist that he wanted "every Labour vote". Douglas Alexander also said the same thing, except that he correctly referred to the party as the Liberal Democrats.
There was further bad news for Labour as the Financial Times rather grudgingly endorsed the Conservatives for the first time since 1992. The Daily Mail also made up its mind (not that it came as that much of a surprise) and under the headline 'Vote DECISIVELY to stop Britain walking blindly into disaster' it urged its readers to "vote Conservative tomorrow" as "David Cameron is the best and perhaps the only hope on offer for Britain". The Mail also decided to produce its own tactical voting guide, and identified those seats where its readers might vote tactically to ensure a Conservative majority. Further endorsements arrived from the Daily Telegraph, "we believe that only a Conservative government can restore the nation's fortunes" and the Daily Express, "only David Cameron can save Britain" and Simon Cowell who believed that Cameron was the "Prime Minister Britain needs at this time". The Independent said that there was a "strong case for progressively minded voters to lend their support to the Liberal Democrats wherever there is a clear opportunity for that party to win" and that it believed that Labour "would make a better coalition partner for the Liberal Democrats in the event of a hung parliament". It wasn't terribly clear what 'progressively minded voters' where supposed to do if there was no 'clear opportunity' for the Liberal Democrats to win, but presumably it meant that the Independent was hoping for a Hung Parliament like its Sunday version.
But whatever the papers might have said, it was still the case that no one had really mentioned the deficit. One could see why given the reaction to the announcement by Standard and Poor on the 27th April that Greece's sovereign debt had been downgraded to junk status. This news sent markets plunging across the globe as Greece was faced imminent collapse. Of course, as a member of both the euro and the European Union no one really wanted the Greeks to go bust, and so the European Union and the International Monetary Fund agreed on a three-year 110 billion euro bail-out package, at the price of an 'austerity package' that sought to reduce Greece's public deficit to a more manageable 3% of GDP by 2014. Naturally the Greek unions protested and called a two day general strike which rapidly descended into violence on the 5th May when three people were killed in Athens as protesters set fire to a bank. On the following day Greek bank workers went on strike to protest over deaths of their colleagues.
Back in the UK the Institute for Fiscal Studies had unveiled its analysis of the main parties' spending plans on the 28th April produces and concluded that they all contained "multi-billion black holes" and were failing to spell out precisely where the cuts were going to fall; or as The Independent put it, "like it or not, an age of austerity beckons". The BBC predicted that the parties were "set to face increased scrutiny of their spending plans", but that didn't happen largely because the media became entirely preoccupied with the Bigotgate affair. Which was ironic really, as Mrs Duffy had her head screwed on the right way up, and complained that Gordon Brown had never given her a straight answer to the question, "What are you going to do about the debt, Gordon? Greece is down and now Spain and Portugal have lost their credit rating. Who's next?"
An interesting question, and one of the many that remained unanswered during the course of the campaign such as, what had happened to Alistair Darling (strangely quiet during the past month), and would Nick Clegg ever make up his mind as to what he would do in the event of a Hung Parliament? Never mind, at least it was now the 6th May and polling day had arrived. All political debate was forbidden on the broadcast media at least, the polling stations reported a "high turnout" and United Kingdom Independence Party candidate Nigel Farage was injured when a light aircraft towing a UKIP banner crashed in Northamptonshire.
- The award for the headline of the campaign would go to The Sun of the 28th April 2010; 'A Tory vote is a vote for a better sex'. (It wasn't in their manifesto, but you read it in The Sun.)
- The award for the comeback of the campaign would go to journalist Adam Boulton. Having been rebuked by a rather tetchy Peter Mandelson with the words, "You're not running for election", Boulton put him straight with the reply; "Neither are you". (That's right, no one actually voted for Mr Mandelson to become the Baron Mandelson of Foy.)
- The award for journalistic integrity would go to Tom Newton Dunn, political editor of the Sun, who allegedly said that, "It is my job to see that Cameron fucking well gets into Downing Street". (Well, at least he's being honest.)
- The award for the exchange of the campaign would go to Gordon Brown's appearance on BBC Radio 5 Live;
Caller: I've got a good job now but I've just gone over £20,000 so you want to now take more NI off me.
Gordon Brown: Well, I have to pay for the NHS...
Caller: No, Prime Minister. You don't pay for the NHS, we do.
- The award for sheer bare-faced hypocrisy would go to the Sunday Mirror for its editorial of the 2nd May 2010, where it accused the Conservatives of a "shabby stunt" for "childishly" wanting to "cause Mr Clegg trouble" in seeking to "disrupt a vital visit by Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg" to a constituency. Yes, this would be the very same Mirror Group that had paid someone to don a yellow chicken suit and follow David Cameron around. (And in any case, in what sense could any visit by a politician by described as "vital".)
- The award for complete and utter candour spoken with complete disregard for the Party line would go to Manish Sood, the Labour candidate for Norfolk North-West who told the local Lynn News of the 4th May 2010 that "I believe Gordon Brown has been the worst Prime Minister we have had in this country. It is a disgrace and he owes an apology to the people and the Queen." (Sadly Norfolk North-West looked fairly solid for the Conservatives and thus Mr Sood was unlikely to be elected.)
- The award for the prediction of the campaign would go that made by Janey Daley of the Daily Telegraph; "a good proportion of Lib Dem support will evaporate on polling day; the Conservatives will win with a working majority and Labour will implode after their worst defeat in living memory". (Yes, we'll go with that one.)
Now we shall wait for the fat lady to sing.