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Experience versus change, but who’s the REAL change?

By Estelle Shirbon
April 20, 2010

It’s fascinating to watch Labour and the Tories search around for a response to Lib Dem fever after years of ignoring the third party and being incredibly rude to Nick Clegg every time he stood up to speak in the House of Commons. No sooner would the Speaker call Clegg’s name at the weekly cock fight that is Prime Minister’s Questions than Labour and Tory MPs would fall about laughing. Well, for the time being, the joke is on them.

Keeping their eyes firmly on David Cameron, still the main threat to Labour despite the wave of Cleggmania sweeping the land, Labour staged a press conference about the economy yesterday morning — strangely, at the same venue where Clegg launched the Lib Dem manifesto last week. Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and Alistair Darling came armed with a new campaign prop: a fake radio news bulletin dated June 25, offering an alarming scenario of what would be happening to Britain under a Conservative government.

Try as they may though, the Labour trio could not generate much media interest in an old-fashioned duel with their traditional enemies. When it came to questions, all the journalists wanted to talk about was Clegg, Clegg and more Clegg. Which gave Brown an opportunity to test out a new joke (he’s been unusually experimental with comedy in this campaign — part of the whole softening-the-image strategy?) when he quipped that he knew only too well what a short political honeymoon felt like. Be warned, Nick, the fall will be painful.

In the end, the words of warning about the dangers of Tory economic policies fell on deaf ears. There was hardly a mention of them in yesterday’s news bulletins, and you’d have to take a magnifying glass to today’s papers to find any trace of the Labour message.

Meanwhile, Team Cameron adopted a different approach. Putting a positive spin on their decision to scrap an anti-Labour campaign broadcast in favour of a hastily put-together clip of Cameron in his garden trying to reclaim the message of change from the upstart Clegg, Tory officials said this showed their leader was “responding to the public mood”. You bet he is.

Appearing earlier in the uplifting setting of Kennington Park Business Centre in South London, a beautifully refurbished old building with a pleasant atrium full of light, Cameron, in shirtsleeves, tried to recapture the campaign magic. Repeating the words “strong leadership” and “real change” more times than anyone could count, he didn’t name Clegg but everything he said was about fending off the Lib Dem challenge.

The question-and-answer session was perhaps one of the most uncomfortable Cameron has faced. “Now that Nick Clegg has successfully positioned himself as the agent of change in this election, what have you got left?” was one of the questions. As always, Cameron dealt with it smoothly, talking about how what he was offering wasn’t just a cosmetic change but a whole new way of doing things through his Big Idea, the Big Society.

But the question did highlight a real problem for Cameron. Although he has worked hard to change his party, and he personally has the image of a dynamic, personable leader who is very different from his Tory predecessors, Cameron has been known to most voters for more than four years and the novelty has worn off somewhat. In an interview with Reuters a few weeks ago, the head of the Demos think-tank, Richard Reeves, made the point that one of the difficulties for the Tories in this campaign was that they had already pushed their message of change and presented some of their most eye-catching policies well in advance of the election campaign. This had raised their profile and given them a solid poll lead for a long time, but had left them with perhaps not enough that was totally new to offer up as polling day nears.

Now that Clegg has so effectively seized the change mantra as his own, the problem is even more acute for Cameron.

Still, it would be very premature to hazard a guess on exactly how all of this will play out between now and May 6. The next big thing is of course the second leaders’ debate on Thursday. Brown and Cameron both have relatively few campaign events lined up between now and then, suggesting that they are hard at work behind the scenes figuring out how on Earth to deal with the pesky outsider this time.

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