I hate to say it, but even though all the experts conclude this could be the most exciting election for a generation, I have a sneaking suspicion it's all going to come down to which party can best persuade the electorate they're the dullest.
That's because we've all tuned out of the gimmicky showcase photo-opportunities and the pat sloganeering. The constructs of dramatic set-piece speeches in "apt" locations – like a knife factory to show how "cutting-edge" a leader is, or a school cleaner's office to show how a politician cares equally for education and health – no longer have impact. Cameron rolls his sleeves up to show he's dynamic but we know that is exactly why he does that, so we no longer see him as dynamic but as someone who just rolls his sleeves up.
This election, the posters don't wash, and the soundbites don't translate: we're too media-savvy to be even subliminally impressed. Now that laptop software can translate any poster into a satirical rebuttal of itself, poster campaigns become an outmoded form of argument: like town criers. The daily press conferences and hand-shakes behind rope-barriers seem, in today's technocracy, weirdly historic: like carrier pigeons. Politicians getting in and out of battle buses and shouting through loudhailers at passing children and windswept shoppers seem no different from 18-year-old medical students collecting for Rag Week. There's something curiously am-dram about the national hustings.
But there's a further, greater reason why the Punch and Judy razzamatazz of a traditional British general election will fall pretty flat this time round. The campaign is taking place against the constant backdrop of miserable economic fortune. Collapsed banks, mounting debt, looming cuts and stubborn unemployment sit in front of us whichever way we vote, and so a four-week festival of jolly rosettes and attention-grabbing gimmicks look pretty heartless in comparison. We may take Sir Michael Caine out of his box for a day, but that will produce only 24 hours' worth of front page. The next government is not going to be voted in on the say-so from the gang- torturing star of Harry Brown.
And finally, there is the residual smell from the "Rotten Parliament" whose legacy of duck houses and moat expenses has left everyone feeling very suspicious of anyone who opens his or her mouth and asks you to vote for them. There have been many knowing winks from political commentators this week all saying: "The c-word has become the talking point of this election so far." They went on to explain that they meant the word "change", thus ignoring the far more accurate truth of this election, which is that we really do think all politicians are c**ts.
Instead, I sense a genuine appetite from the electorate for something rather considered and sober. Dullness is going to be "wot wins it" this time round. Lack of showiness, a tendency not to go for the gimmick, the projection of a personality that doesn't play with the temptations of charisma. This could be why Cameron, with all his energy and youth and human wife, is still not breaking through the 40 per cent barrier, and could also be why Alistair Darling has suddenly become Labour's secret weapon, and Vince Cable the sexy poster-boy for the Lib Dems. The public is taking a good, long, hard look at these people, and this time round not rushing to judgment. There's a far more glacial evolution of opinion. Polls don't leap up or down overnight.
Take the row over national insurance as an example. In the Chancellor's debate, George Osborne's proposal to reverse the planned Labour rise in NI contributions was derided by both his opponents as uncosted and unworkable. Next day, Vince Cable was hailed by the media as the debate winner, and Osborne banished as a sore loser. Now, the same decision has come back to dominate the first week of campaigning, and this time, because a glitzy roll call of business leaders is recruited to agree with Osborne, the media has done a collective about-turn and hailed the policy as a master stroke. It probably is, if you're judging how good the parties are at dominating the day's headlines. But it seems to make no difference if you're looking at how people will vote.
Notwithstanding Labour's clod-hopping counter-attack on the business community, public opinion on this seems fairly stuck at a tiny majority still thinking the Tory policy is a bad idea. That's weird, if you garner your views from the collective headlines, but it's not if you don't play that game. Labour and Lib Dems will, no doubt, try similar attention-grabbers in future, but the fact is, our attention is not available for grabbing. This election, we're staying indoors and quietly looking for the dullest candidates, and on 6 May we may all come out and quietly shout their names.Reuse content