As a political nerd I thought David Cameron did well in the Election Debate on Thursday, but my opinion does not matter a jot, and frankly, if you are reading this, the same applies for your opinion too.
The fact is that the media and the uncommitted appear to have reached the conclusion that Nick Clegg did well and in elections the perception of the uncommitted is King.
Whether we like it or not, Mr Clegg has squeezed into significant contention on the back of a relaxed media performance, and, coming as he did from left field (sic), he surprised many, including some of his supporters. The big question for today is accordingly “What is to be done?”
First, I hope we do not spend too much time on David Cameron’s performance. There was little wrong with it in its own genre. He worked to a game plan (and Clegg did no less) and followed what the electorate said they wanted. He was restrained, dignified, tried to relate to ordinary people, shared his own values (for which he is now criticised) and was even in his delivery. No doubt he was aware of the huge burden on his shoulders and that carefulness perhaps showed in his approach which may have lacked some of the “bounce” he can generate at Cameron Direct meetings.
The problem is, that whatever the public may say they want, they actually respond to something different. Thus, whilst Cameron tried to obey the mantra to be positive, to agree with the others when he could and to give (minimal) credit where it was due, he was ganged up on by the other two, one of whom profited by making the very attacks which the uncommitted say they don’t want.
We have to learn to live with paradox.
Never was the old adage truer:
"Now is the time for all good (wo) men to come to the aid of the Party."
Ukip trolls have to wake up and smell the coffee. Tebbits have to realise that a Clegg/Brown Alliance will continue the progressive agenda, not least in a reform of the voting system and an embedding into Europe that may render future change in these areas beyond practical contemplation.
But one difficult skirmish is not a disaster. There is everything still to play for and plainly Gordon Brown, whilst relieved he did not crash and burn, has no cause for comfort today on his own account.
Clegg’s success is a mixed blessing, for he too must now learn the paradox. His very success lon Thursday night might be his undoing. What he has earned is not an election triumph but simply the right to be taken more seriously, and with that comes what he ought to fear most – serious scrutiny.
Conservative strategists will need to consider who undertakes the most pressing of tasks: telling the public more about the Lib Dem leader. It may be Cameron himself, but this might be the time for other heavy guns to come to bear on the inconsistency at the heart of the Clegg/Cable alliance. We need to get some basic perceptions out there; political poison chewed into the muscle of the Lib Dem body politic. That poison is all self-generated.
Cameron touched on some of those inconsistencies himself. He has them to mind, but the format of the debate did not lend itself to enabling the argument to be best deployed. That is the task for his lieutenants as they get out around the media and opinion formers. We need to create the background mood music to help David Cameron the next time around.
Nick Clegg, the Democrat, was he who welched on the European Referendum promise. Cameron had a different call to make ex post facto. Clegg had his history of democratic rhetoric and yet chose to betray a promise – like Brown. Who can trust him?
Nick Clegg is now Neil Kinnock Mark II – The Unilateralist – to the left of Brown. He uses the cost figure of Trident to suggest his economic policy is coherent but the figure to note is not the alleged £100 billion but the time scale – over 25 years. £4 billion a year: a tidy sum but with Brown’s debt wracking up at £300,000 a minute (and let's hear more of that), it is not really a financial game changer in the modern world.
Nick Clegg and Vince Cable are flip floppers – most notably over National Insurance. Iain Dale recently contrasted the policy statements, first opposed now in support.
• Opposing jobs tax is ‘school boy economics’. ‘This is school boy economics. When you have a £70 billion permanent hole in the Government’s finances you simply can’t propose cutting tax revenue unless you spell out exactly how you are going to pay for it.’ (Vince Cable)
• Opposing jobs tax is ‘voodoo economics’ and a ‘con’. ‘Now they [Conservatives] say they’re going to stop the increase in national insurance which of course everyone would like to do but they won’t tell you how they’re going to pay for it. This is voodoo economics it’s just funny money it’s trying to con people into thinking you can have something for nothing. It’s not serious, it won’t work… (Nick Clegg, ITN News on YouTube, 1 April 2010)
And yet, guess what? Today, in their manifesto the LibDems say they would reverse Labour’s jobs tax.
‘…the increase in National Insurance Contributions is a damaging tax on jobs and an unfair tax on employees, so when resources allow we would seek to reverse it.’ (Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2010, April 2010, pg. 97)
Nick Clegg masquerades as one to clean up politics – but will not pay back the stolen £2.5m given to his party by Michael Brown. The Party may have been exonerated from culpability by the Electoral Commission for receiving the money; a man of honour might give it back to the victims.
In the policy area resonating most – off the scale of the chattering classes – immigration, he supports an illegal immigrant amnesty. That has a law and order dimension. Where crime is concerned Liberals are… well… liberal.
These are just a few quickly assembled contrasting observations about the amiable “straight guy” newly unveiled to the unsuspecting electorate. David Cameron cannot make these points succinctly within the constraints of that style of debate.
It is incumbent on the Party, its articulate politicians, its strategists and all workers formally and informally to get this message out there. Like Obama, you may not really know what you are voting for. Vote Smiley? – it’ll all end in tears.