Conservative Diary

« ConHome's expert panel assesses tonight's leaders' debate | Main | Tories will use final week of campaign to set out clear policy guarantees for every voter »

David Cameron, marathon man?

It's often said that the three leaders' debates have shaped this election.  The truth is the other way round.  It's the election that's shaped the leaders' debates - more and more so as each week has passed.

At the start of the campaign, voters were angry, scornful, contemptuous of the system, seeking revenge for the expenses scandal - and everything it symbolised.  Turnout was expected to be low.  As I've written before here, the electorate was thinking of the kicking the politicians rather than guarding their wallets.

In Nick Clegg, they found a boot with which to lash out.  His performance in the first debate - fresh, informal, light on detail - was pitched perfectly for the moment.  The Liberals' poll ratings soared.

David Cameron played safe in that debate.  Brown...well, he was Brown.  It seemed that we were heading straight for a hung Parliament.

I wrote here this time last week that the importance of the debates was being over-egged.  A hung Parliament could be avoided if the voters' mood changed - if they began to think of guarding their wallets rather than kicking the politicians.

The debates have been only one means of shaping that mood, and far from the most telling.  The news from Greece has had an impact.  So has the IFS report on the parties' manifestos.  So has the news of low growth in the last quarter. And so - so much more - have millions of everyday domestic happenings which don't make the news: worry in one household about whether mortgage rates will go up; fear in another of rising taxes; concern in another about climbing prices...

In the second debate, Cameron was improved.  Brown was...well, you know how he was.  Clegg's pretty tricks began to stale slightly.

But what mattered wasn't who won.  It was that between the first debate and the second, the public mood began to shift.  People began to think a bit less about the politicians and a bit more about themselves. Poll support for a hung Parliament began to fall. Commentators began to write that turnout could rise.  And Cameron helped to change that mood - proclaiming firmly that he was still campaigning on the Big Society while deftly drafting in Ken Clarke to warn of a small economy...and the dangers of a hung Parliament.

I also wrote last week that Clegg had lost momentum, and seemed to have peaked.  In last night's debate, his lightness on detail was unmissable.  Brown was...well, you know that he was even worse than you thought he could be.  And Cameron was improved still further - direct, energetic and, crucially, unwilling to shy away from classic Conservative positions on immigration, the EU and welfare reform.

I'm sticking to my guns.  What matters isn't that he won last night's debate.  It's that he has played his part in helping to change the public mood - through announcements, stump speeches, campaign visits, briefings, photocalls and interviews as well as during the debates.  Through lots of little appearances as well as three big ones.

And so we enter the last seven days with every chance that voters will go to the polls in a mood no less unhappy, but infinitely more sober and realistic, than when this election campaign began.

If they do, and Cameron can form a government as a result, he will hailed as a Tory Houdini, as the Great Survivor, as Marathon Man - the leader who escaped the grammar schools debacle; who fought off a 2007 election with that noteless conference speech; who recovered from the blunder of letting Clegg into the debates...and who hauled himself off the floor, like Eric Liddell in "Chariots of Fire", gathered speed, powered first over the finishing line, and won the debates - even though, as I say, they've mattered far, far less than those televising them would have you believe.

Paul Goodman


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.