20,000 voters and a bloke called Ashdown

Hot air from Clegg as LibDems run out of steam, and
Cameron gets second wind

Nick Clegg called for “an end to Lord Ashdown” last Sunday. It’s very important in politics to get the names right, and clearly there’s room for improvement in Nick’s hard-wired memory. But it was only a minor gaffette. We watched Mr Clegg later in the day, speaking at the LibDem stronghold in Richmond. My wife mumbled “Get to the point” after five minutes of affable woffle. Ignore my wife at your peril: she has the pulse of the voters like no other I know, and according to Tory HQ just 20,000 of them could now decide the result. Sounds like an election wide-open to bribery to me: quick, call Lord Ashdown. The Hung Parliament could yet be preceded by the Bung Election.

Nothing is ever uttered by Clegg without some exaggerated adjective being added. Yesterday he referred to Cameron as displaying “breathtaking arrogance” for not wanting to do a deal with his Barmy Army. But he had enough breath left five minutes later to announce that the Tories are “completely in hock to the City”. The FT sort of backed him up this morning by endorsing the Conservatives, but this was hardly a surprise. Anyway, Tory-bashing over, Nick zoomed oop North and told audiences there that Labour was “a waste of space” that had “let so many of its supporters down”. I’m beginning to think Mr Clegg is taking tact lessons from Nigel Farage.

In the Waste of Space itself, the Pink Panther that is Peter Mandelson remains able to get a hundred hacks to report everything he says, and unable to resist saying something to at least seventy of them . Having announced last Thursday that Gordon Brown had “barnstormed to victory” in the final TV debate, the Labour peer declared there is now “a natural progressive majority” in the UK, his newly minted phrase for referring to the 43% of people who work for the Government. He went further, and said “round about two-thirds of voters have yet to make their minds up”, an assertion which is round about 100% fiction.

But this is what Mandy does best: Tory/Telegraph plots, Cameron/Newscorp plots, Tory/Ashcroft plots, obvious signs of recovery, I never said that, Not me officer and so forth: he is the peripatetic fibber par excellence – gone in a flash to talk about something else somewhere else before anyone has the time to interrogate his fantasies. What Gordon does best is hug people who aren’t bigoted, and he put his heart and….forget soul, he was doing everything it took at the Citizens UK rally yesterday to hug a tragic Asian lady who had suffered the most atrocious ill-treatment. Desperate to get off the stage and return to her private life, she was unable to do this because of the bear-hug being forced upon her by the Prime Minister. This must be what straws feel like when gripped in desperation by the drowning swimmer.

The Conservatives continue to behave as pretty much what they are: a Party riven by factions divided on everything from election strategy and coalition tactics to social policy. The first Tory last week to say that PR was non-negotiable because it wouldn’t be on the list of things to negotiate, Iain Duncan-Smith told The Politics Show with what he called “quiet confidence” yesterday that there would be encouraging news from research in the marginals later in the day. The data duly appeared, and showed a 7% swing to Labour.

IDS doesn’t like Cameron much. He thinks Dave too trendy and too willing to talk about civil partnerships, more women directors and other irrelevancies. Cameron himself believes a Conservative government would have six months of public goodwill in which to lay out tough spending plans to reduce the deficit. The public could have had a further month to think about the consequences or wisdom of those cuts had the Tory leader (or any of the others) deigned to share their plans with us during the campaign.

One young man who was mustard-keen to do just that was George Osborne, but the order to belt up about it has marginalised the Chancellor in the election campaign – and raised persistent speculation about the Top Toff Tiff between the two men first revealed by The Slog some weeks back. Yesterday, in an interview with The Sun, Osborne was forced to deny any rift, and tell the Murdoch tabloid that he had ‘no plans to stab his chum in the back’. George didn’t elaborate on what other parts of the body he’d be prepared to penetrate.

Even the management of the Tory campaign feels a bit divide and rule. Steve ‘Interesting’ Hilton is in there somewhere – along with Osborne himself, and the likeable Oliver Letwin. And of course, Dave meddles constantly. This probably explains why one hack said to me last weekend that the Tory briefings were “consistently repetitive soundbites wrapped around inconsistent ideas”.

All that said, a later marginals poll did put the Tories within a few seats of majority status. Although he left it late, I think David Cameron has gambled and won – just – by focusing on Labour marginals in the end. It’s now fairly clear that the Party will make few (probably no) gains at the expense of the LibDems. Given the position at the start of the campaign, this is an astonishing turnaround for the Cleggies. Old Lord Ashcroft sorry Ashdown was flapping about quite a bit in the West Country a month ago -but not now.

However it all pans out in the end, three television debates have damned Labour to third place, and removed what should’ve been a relatively easy win for the Conservative Party. There remain several cliques in that latter Party who will hold Cameron’s enthusiastic embrace of the idea against him in years to come. The truth is that Dave had no choice: this really was a case of helping the Digger do something about his awful audience figures beyond UK soccer.