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Tuesday, April 20, 2010 

What the bloody hell is going on with this election?

Tom Freeman has put it most succinctly, and has probably also taken the right decision on what to do in response: what the bloody hell is going on with this election? His answer: to go outside.

Envious as I am of him, I'm not going to give in that easily. Besides, the sudden insert cliché here in Liberal Democrat support is not just bemusing, but also incredibly amusing. Not in the sense that support for them is funny, but at how both Labour and the Conservatives and their media forelock tuggers have decided to respond. The Sun, for instance, having completely ignored the Liberal Democrats for years, has just dedicated two editorials in two days to them, even if today's is ostensibly about how David Cameron is the real candidate for change. Last night the Tories scrapped their planned party political broadcast and instead went for a hastily recorded one-to-one with Dave, which seems to be an especially odd response: if anything, it looks like the personality cult which the Tories have tried to build around Cameron which is being rejected far more than actual Conservative policies. Meanwhile, Labour bloggers, or at least those sympathetic towards the party have been trying to attack the Lib Dems from all angles, whether it be over their local alliances with the Tories, Clegg's resemblance to Tim Henman, their plans to slash public services, or over how the sudden change in public mood superficially looks similar to the response to the death of Princess Diana.

Fact is that absolutely no one, even the most learned psephologists, have any clue where this insert cliche here rise in Liberal Democrat support has come from or is about. We can however make something approaching educated guesses. Certainly, this isn't just about Nick Clegg's performance on Thursday: it simply wasn't that good. It was good, it was easily the best of the three, but that alone doesn't account for a 10 point rise. Indeed, the polls suggest that the rise in Liberal Democrat support was already there before Thursday, and that can only be linked both to the party's manifesto and to the coverage it received on Wednesday. Again, the manifesto wasn't that great; it was adequate, and again, the best of the three, but not brilliant. Rather, I suspect that the initial bounce which the party received both from the manifesto, media coverage and then Nick Clegg's debate performance has been boosted dramatically by two outside forces: firstly by the sudden realisation that the Liberal Democrats could actually come somewhere other than third, or even win, something that no one, even the party themselves could believe prior to Thursday; and secondly that Clegg is now the true change candidate, the insurgent that Cameron has so desperately tried and continues to portray himself as, and which now looks to be as laughable as it always should have been.

For surely the sudden implosion of the bubble surrounding Cameron is just as much the story as the increase in support for Clegg's party is. Although Cameron has had shaky periods while leader, and been derided in the past including by the Tory press for some of his more woolly ideas, he's never been so completely exposed to the public as he was on Thursday. If Clegg shone rather like Cameron's forehead did, then Cameron's actual performance was dull and jaded by comparison. At times he resembled not this modern, thrusting, comfortable in any setting man of the people but the bar room Tory bore of old, with just as many hoary old anecdotes. Clegg made them as well in the faux attempt to suggest that they as leaders of political parties actually had some kind of relation with real people, but they were less grating and obvious. For many, it was doubtless the first really long look they had taken at Cameron outside of his natural element, and they didn't like what they saw. It doesn't matter how many numerous "Cameron Direct" meetings he'd done where he'd come across as everything that his advisers and spinners have set him up as, when it came to when it really mattered, to enter performance cliché, it just didn't work.

Hence the hysterical response of the likes of the Sun, continuing to make Cameron out to be an amalgamation of Christ, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. For the first time in the last few years, the Tories are completely behind the curve: they don't seem to understand that a hung parliament now appears to be what a majority of voters actually want, with all the connotations that it carries, and so spent the last few days desperately swimming against that tide. Now they've gone on the attack with a spectacularly ill-judged ad, calling for the benefits of those who refuse work to be cut. This rather overlooks that this is already in action, and also far more pertinently that there are still tens of thousands of people out there that would take absolutely any job offered, but simply can't find one. What does this say to them? What does this say about the Conservatives when confronted for the very first time with the hard truth that it looks like they're not going to win even a slight majority? Rather than keep with the positive campaigning, they head straight for one of the easiest targets, and also one of the most vulnerable. It's dog-whistle politics of the most pernicious kind.

As for Labour, it's no wonder that they've been so relatively complacent with the Liberal Democrat surge. They're looking at the projections if the polls stay the same way, no matter how ridiculous that seems even now, and they're realising that thanks to the insanity of our electoral system, they're still going to end up with the most seats even if they come third and win only around 28% of the vote. The problem is they're making assumptions about how this will obviously mean that Clegg and Cable are more likely to work with them than the Conservatives, when it will surely, as Dan Paskins points out, mean an end to any sort of real control on government. Far more difficult is attacking them from the left as Dan also proposes: even if some of their policies could conceivably be described as to the right of Labour's, and these are few and far between, such as the cutting of tax credits and the child trust fund to fund the shaky rise in the income tax allowance to £10,000, this isn't necessarily about policies themselves. If anything, it's about giving both Labour and the Tories a kicking, with the young and those who abstained last time in the vanguard, with those still undecided slightly behind. Only those firmly in Tory and Labour camps appear to be sticking with their first choice.

It remains to be seen whether this rise in Liberal Democrat support can possibly be sustained for another two weeks, or even if it will actually translate into votes themselves. I continue to suspect that there's many out there that are still embarrassed to admit to supporting the Tories, or even Labour although on a lesser scale, and that the polls aren't reflecting that. It's difficult not to be carried away though by just how quickly things have changed, and just how exciting it's made an election that was threatening to be only about the false change offered by Cameron and the "jobs tax" that bored everyone into submission in the first week. There are still another two debates to go, let alone endless pratfalls which any of the three parties could make. Clegg could look just as much of a tit in the next two as Cameron did in the first; he could, like Vince Cable has done, outstay his welcome and overdo the saintly bit; his party could implode like it did when power also looked likely back in the 80s. Normal service might well be restored, but for now we should perhaps, as Clegg himself hoped to do, simply enjoy it.

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In a way your focus on Cameron makes my point that when you look at the prospective Tory front bench you become underwhelmed at its inadequacy. Indeed Kenneth Clark who is the one who could make a difference is sidelined. Where's George? Where's little dissembling Willie? (Incidentally recalling Mrs Thatcher's saying that every PM needs a Willie is he to be Cameron's?) Where's Liam?

Compare Labour and indeed the Lib Dems and they don't present themselves as being one man bands.
I suggest therefore that a part of the Tory slippage is that the voters aren't convinced by Team Cameron.

Excellent point Richard T, cult of personality only works if there is a desirable personality.

It really is hilarious watching the right-wing press go apeshit. Yesterday we had a Telegraph editorial declaring that it would be "a negation of democracy" if the Tories didn't win.

Still, Cameron kept telling people to "vote for change". He only has himself to blame for this.

The LD support is from young people who like the no university tuition fees thing. Also, there is something on facebook about LDs taking a stand against the digital economy bill or something. Which is important, but can be quite easily repealed later unlike euro membership and further EU integration. What's more, young people are pretty clueless about economics and tend to be heavily EU-phile. I'm 21 and I feel alone.

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