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21 April, 2010  
London Calling

Leverhulme at the British elections … Round one to the Lib-Dem’s Clegg … The next debate will be most uncomfortable … Cracked souls who want to be PM … It was different when Winston ran the country from his bedroom

imageStanley Melbourne Bruce, the Australian Prime Minister who wore spats, said there were three qualifications for the office of Prime Minister: a hide like a rhinoceros, an overweening ambition and a mighty good conceit of oneself.

It’s not a bad definition.

You can see varying doses of each in former Aussie leaders: Howard (hide); Keating (ambition) and Hawke.

Bruce’s observation came to mind last week as the three contenders for Britain’s top job stood like nervous applicants before the public and we witnessed what the English media thought was history in the making.

I use the expression “top job” advisedly.

Gordon Brown earns about £185,000 but the Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson gets compensation, as the Yanks say, of about £800,000 a year.

Come to think of it, the Stoke-on-Trent council boss pulls in more than the Undertaker.

But I digress.

* * *

imageIt is true that it is the first time the leaders have debated on television during an election campaign.

There were over 80 rules in place including one that the invited audience could not cheer or applaud. I don’t think they were forbidden from laughing.

It was a dullish affair and it didn’t help that the candidates had been over-coached.

It’s wonderful to watch fabulously paid media spivs as they make clever observations, which are quickly shot down.

For instance Dave Cameron, the Tory toff stood in between El Gordo and the Lib-Dem’s Nick Clegg.

We were told that this was the pole position. It wasn’t. Cameron came last, the sages said, because the other two were able to snipe at him from the sidelines.

We were informed that looking sincere was crucial. Then when Clegg won it wasn’t because he failed to look at the studio audience but because he stared instead straight into the camera.

Cameron, they said, had been badly coached: he didn’t make eye-contact with the 10 million Brits who were wedged in their sofas.

The next debate will be uncomfortable. Someone else will have to go into the middle – it might not be the PM because he is blind in his left eye – and all three of the candidates are bound to be staring pleadingly straight at us.

* * *

Another curious feature of this campaign is that the press are stunned that Cleggie is now in front.

For years he has been out of the spotlight because the media, and therefore the public, thinks the Liberals have no hope.

imageNick gets little airtime. Yet, on some of the big issues like the Gurkhas and the parliamentary expenses scandal, Clegg was right.

He seems fairly normal: he has a beautiful Spanish international lawyer wife; three foals at foot and is tall, articulate and presentable.

Pic: Miriam and Nick Clegg

His Treasury spokesman, Vince Cable is the most trusted politician in the country.

But when all of a sudden Clegg gets equal time and status with Cameron and Brown for 90 minutes on prime-time telly and goes up in the polls from 18 to 31 percent, the journos scratch their heads in wonder.

The real reason why Clegg won the debate is that like Tony Blair, he appeared to answer the audience’s questions simply and directly even if he did not.

It also helps that he’s not Labour or Tory.

* * *

I’ve no doubt each of the three contestants has a soupcon or two of Stan Bruce’s ingredients but I think the Aussie Viscount missed a fourth element for Prime Ministerial success: a touch of insanity.

In short, you’d have to be mad to want the job.

* * *

Gordon has always looked slightly spooky.

He’s been told to smile but he turns it on at inappropriate moments, like when he’s just finished talking about a train crash.

Other PMs have had reputations for batty behaviour.

Remember, Harold Wilson thinking there was an M15 bug in the light socket above Gladstone’s picture (there probably was) and Margaret Thatcher wearing that Elizabethan cloak and pearls to the Mansion House a couple of nights before she lost her head. Or the marvellous moment when she announced to the world, “We are a grandmother”.

imageIt is said that even normal, placid and grey John Major would scour the papers looking for nasty things that had been written about him so he could complain bitterly at once to the editors.

And Steve Bell, The Guardian cartoonist always portrays the messianic Tony Blair with a mad left eye.

To want the job you must believe you can do it better than anyone else.

To stay in the job you must endure constant pressure, dreadful abuse and heartbreaking disloyalty.

In short, you must be crackers.

* * *

Clegg is now the darling of the media and methinks this development presages an imminent effort to knock him down hard.

The banner headline in The Sunday Times was ludicrous: Clegg is Nearly as Popular as Churchill.

imageBut was Winnie mad too? Here is an extract from The Macmillan Diaries (Pan Books 2003).

Harold Macmillan (pic) suffered from bad bouts of depression, which saw him holed up in bed at Birch Grove for days at a time.

But just get this.

“He (Churchill) asked me to go round to Number 10 which I did (about 9.30 am). I found him in bed, with a little green budgerigar sitting on his head.

A very strange sight: he had the cage on the bed (from which the bird had just come out) and a cigar in his hand. A whisky and soda was by his side – of this the little bird took sips later on. Miss Portal sat by the bed – he was dictating. Really, he is a unique, dear man with all his qualities and faults…

He had just got a letter from the President, about the atomic and hydrogen bombs…

The bird flew around the room; perched on my shoulder and pecked (or kissed) my neck; flew to Miss Portal’s arm; back to the PM’s head, while all the time sonorous ‘Gibbonesque’ sentences were rolling out of the maestro’s mouth on the most terrible and destructive engine of mass warfare yet known to mankind.

The bird [said] a few words, in a husky voice like an American actress … and occasionally [sipped] a little whisky.”

* * *

imageLast week the former Tory leader William Hague (pic) was interviewed about David Cameron.

He said he was the sanest Tory leader he had known and added, “I include myself in that list”.

Poor old Dave. His chances are receding.