Which David Cameron will take the stage for tonight’s seven-way showdown? Will it be the competent, likeable and reasonable statesman who has steered the economy onto safer ground? Or the tetchy one who calls Ed Miliband a ‘waste of space’ at Prime Minister’s Questions?
On Monday, speaking at a lectern outside the door of Number 10, the Prime Minister decided to launch a personal attack on his opposite number rather than make a statesman-like pitch to the electorate. To have mentioned Ed Miliband by name once would have been historic – doing so three times smacked of desperation.
Criticising opponents is entirely legitimate, but the hostility of these attacks raises the question of whether David Cameron is – to use his own word – so ‘reasonable’ after all? Certainly the Tory description of a Labour future has become increasingly farfetched. One might not agree with Ed Miliband, but would a government of his really cause ‘chaos’? Voters might be put off by the hyperbole of this word as much as they are the endless repetition of it.
Lynton Crosby’s ‘message discipline’ is fine in principle, but watch too many Conservative ministers on the airwaves and you’ll begin to appreciate how it becomes an unnatural straightjacket on its proponents. The uncomfortable truth is that, for all the talk of ‘hardworking families’ and the ‘long-term economic plan’, Mr Cameron is perceived as more ‘out of touch’ than ever. The helpful letter from more than 100 business leaders to the Telegraph this week does nothing to address this Achilles’ heel.
The focus of the campaign moves on to tonight’s ITV clash. It is worth noting that Ed Miliband’s strongest moment during last week’s Q&A came when he praised the Government for passing equal marriage and committing to overseas aid. What could be more ‘reasonable’ than being able to see good in your opponents? Humility is attractive. Unlike the Labour leader, however, the Prime Minister received no applause when he replied to the same question with a general compliment about all politicians ‘serving the public’.
Tories are said to be pleased that their man will be placed well away from Nigel Farage this evening. But standing on the far end also presents a risk. A YouGov poll for the Times yesterday suggested expectations of Ed Miliband are rising. If Cameron uses the showdown to throw personal insults it could be the Labour leader, positioned in the centre, who ends up looking prime ministerial. The consequence of that would only make the impending ‘chaos’ ever more likely.