‘Behind the Political Masks’, Financial Times, 4 May 2015

It’s been a no-surprises campaign — or so runs the conventional wisdom. Yet, almost in spite of themselves, nearly all the party leaders have told us something worth knowing.

From Natalie Bennett, we’ve learned that the Greens have picked a leader who promotes policies far removed from current realities. They remain, in German Greens parlance, fundis rather than realos. Polls suggest there is a market for their left-libertarian identity politics. But that niche still seems too small to persuade other parties into following their lead.

Ukip, of course, has had exactly that effect on the Conservatives over the past five years, even if the past five weeks have seen the Tories trying hard not to talk too much about immigration and Europe — Nigel Farage’s signature issues.

What we’ve learned about Farage is that, for all the talk of his party eating into Labour’s northern heartlands, his main focus remains those voters who no longer believe the Tories have the backbone to resist the tide of foreigners and political correctness supposedly threatening to engulf the country they grew up in. He is also desperate to win a seat in the Commons.

The fact that Ukip, and maybe even some Tories, see the Scots as part of that hostile tide is testimony to the performance of the SNP and its leader Nicola Sturgeon. The star of the campaign, she has managed not just to defend but extend her party’s lead over Labour north of the border, at the same time as impressing — or scaring the living daylights out of — English voters.

She has also managed, with supreme sleight of hand and breathtaking chutzpah, to enter into an unspoken alliance with the Conservatives — one that massively overstates her likely influence over a putative Labour minority government. This is in the hope that, by helping David Cameron to secure a second term, an SNP victory in 2016 and a second independence referendum will become more likely.

In the early stages of the campaign especially, Cameron failed to impress. He was almost always on message but he was hardly ever on fire — never close to crashing, yet seemingly unable to pull away from the pack and put sufficient distance between his party and its main opponent.

Polling suggests voters think he looks the part, yet doubt he understands the needs of ordinary people. They are not convinced that his party represents the many, as opposed to the few.

That said, his performance in front of a tough crowd during the BBC’s Question Time last week suggested he might be a strong finisher and there are a few signs that the Conservatives’ claim to stand for competence rather than chaos might yet see them home.

Ed Miliband did not do so well in front of the same tough crowd, although it remains undeniable that he has exceeded the low expectations many voters had of him. The Labour leader has been buoyed by some well-judged performances at the outset of the campaign and helped by the clarity brought to Labour’s messaging by advisers bought in from the Obama operation.

As a result, Miliband, who many assumed would be played off the park, has managed to keep himself, and his party, in the game. This does not, however, preclude Labour going down to defeat in the dying minutes.

Such morbid talk brings us, finally, to Nick Clegg. Like his party, he has struggled to gain visibility, let alone traction, in the campaign. For all that, predictions of his personal demise in Sheffield Hallam are probably premature. And given how pivotal the Lib Dems will be in almost every post-election scenario, they are likely to survive the near-death experience they may face on May 7 — with or without their leader.

[Originally published at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/855f8216-f182-11e4-98c5-00144feab7de.html]

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