‘UK general election: ‘Happy Warrior’ confronts bomber pilot’, Financial Times, 10 April 2015

What constitutes a good week for a party leader during an election campaign depends very much on which leader you are talking about, as well as the kind of campaign they have made up their mind to fight.

David Cameron, for instance, is clearly intent on pursuing a classic incumbent strategy — so much so that Stanley Baldwin’s (unsuccessful) “Safety First” campaign of 1929 or Harold Macmillan’s (successful) “Don’t Let Labour Ruin it” warning in 1959 look daring and, indeed, positive by comparison.

For Mr Cameron, every high profile broadcast appearance is as much a threat as it is an opportunity. Think of the prime minister as a wartime bomber pilot: if he manages to drop a few incendiaries somewhere near the target and make it back to base in one piece, then it is mission accomplished.

So far, despite taking flak during a TV interview with Jeremy Paxman, Mr Cameron has come through pretty much unscathed, even if he can’t claim to have inflicted as much damage on the enemy as Bomber Command (in the shape of Lynton Crosby) might have hoped for. Certainly, Labour will be worried about polling showing that the prime minister’s job approval ratings have moved into positive territory for the first time in four years. This suggests that what he is doing, while it may be spectacularly dull, might actually be proving effective.

Given his plan to play the “Happy Warrior” in last week’s televised debate, it is tempting to extend the military metaphor to Ed Miliband. In fact, perhaps appropriately with the Grand National almost upon us, it is the sport of kings that provides a better analogy. Before the off, Labour’s leader wasn’t much fancied. But, since then, punters who previously weren’t paying much attention have noticed that there’s more to him than they had realised. Indeed, rather than fading, let alone falling at the first fence, Mr Miliband seems, if anything, to be gaining strength: polls show he is still unpopular but markedly less so than before the campaign proper began to raise his profile.

For the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, it’s not so much a question of raising his profile as raising himself from the dead. Somehow, he has to remind voters that, to quote Mr Cameron on Tony Blair, “he was the future once” without at the same time reminding them of how he betrayed the promise he displayed and the promises he made back in 2010.

Just as problematically, in order to be able to distance the Lib Dems from the once-again-wicked Tories and yet still trumpet his party’s achievements in coalition with them, the deputy prime minister somehow has to place himself firmly at the scene of the crime as the very same time as coming up with a convincing alibi.

“Good luck with that!”, some will cry — particularly if they are Labour sympathisers long since driven to distraction by the deputy prime minister’s infuriating blend of sanctimoniousness and self-abasement. However, some of the instant polling from last week’s debate suggests that less partisan voters may be a little (although only a little) more willing to swallow his man-in-the-middle-doing-the-best-he-can act. Mr Clegg’s ratings are still poor, but at just over minus 30, they are, like Mr Cameron’s, the best they’ve been since 2011.

Judging by the numbers, Nigel Farage’s shtick seems to be working too. Like an ageing rock star playing yet another moneymaking stadium gig, he has clearly decided to give his fan base the songs they have come to hear rather than risking any new material in a misguided attempt to reach out to a new audience. Polls suggest that his so called “shock and awful” strategy to mobilise his “grumpy old men” base will not prevent UK Independence party suffering some sort of squeeze. But it may mean it can avoid dropping into single figures.

Single figures is where the Green party will almost certainly end up, despite the fact that its leader Natalie Bennett can at least claim to have avoided another “brain fade” moment in the course of the campaign so far. This will suit Mr Miliband just fine. Sadly for him, however, the award for best actor in a leading role in the first fortnight has nevertheless gone, by common consent, to a woman — the Scottish National party’s Nicola Sturgeon.

Mr Miliband, though, can perhaps take some small comfort from the fact that, while Ms Sturgeon’s assured performance will do nothing to help Labour in Scotland, it may make it harder for the Conservatives to argue that she should have no say in who forms the government of the UK. Come May 8, that could prove crucial.

[This article was originally published at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/7b04f38e-dec5-11e4-8a01-00144feab7de.html]


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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