Political theatre unfolds according to script

By Estelle Shirbon
April 6, 2010

BRITAIN-ELECTION/There was a big fuss but no suspense this morning outside Number 10 Downing Street. In what has become a typical pattern in the world of 24-hour news, media organisations had been briefed in advance on the content and the choreography of Gordon Brown’s election announcement. This was the ultimate scripted, pre-packaged news event.

A huge pack of photographers, cameramen and journalists crowded behind crash barriers across the street from the famous black door from the early hours of the morning. The place was abuzz with technicians doing sound checks and taping cables to the ground with duct tape. The TV channels had lined up their star presenters in smart suits and ties, while behind the cameras reporters huddled in fleeces and scarves to fend off the morning cold in the notoriously draughty street.

“What’s going on?” joked Bob Ainsworth, the defence minister, as he arrived for a cabinet meeting before Brown set off to see the Queen. Indeed, anyone in Britain equipped with a TV set or a radio had already been given ample warning that the prime minister was about to ask for the dissolution of parliament and to call an election for May 6.

Veterans of previous election campaigns said Brown staged his big announcement very much in the traditional way, the only novelty being his decision to appear flanked by his cabinet rather than by himself. This was interpreted as a way to offset his personal unpopularity by presenting a team of familiar faces. Brown may also have been trying to draw a contrast with the Conservatives, whose leader David Cameron is widely seen as their main electoral asset but whose other senior figures are little known to most voters.

Whether voters will be charmed by the Labour team photo remains to be seen though. Few will have forgotten that Brown has survived several attempts to topple him by members of his own camp — the latest as recently as January.

The announcement itself, full of talk of recession and dire warnings of hardship should the Conservatives win, was not exactly rousing. “It sounded like they’d already lost,” said one correspondent leaving the scene just after the speech, while another described it as “Presbyterian”, a reference to Brown’s austere style and background as the son of a Scottish clergyman.

After the announcement, Brown sped off to start his campaign tour with visits to a supermarket and a printworks. It will all be scripted from now on until May 6 — unless Brown can be prodded into saying something unexpected during one of the three televised leaders’ debates coming up. That’s probably the best hope of those still keen to see a little spontaneity in our politics.

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