When Tory candidate Robin Walker knocks on pensioner Dorothy Smith's door this sunny spring evening, it's quickly apparent that she will be easier to engage with than her husband Gerard. "What will you do for us?" she asks with what seems like genuine curiosity. "Nothing, like all on 'em" says Mr Smith, before Mr Walker can even answer. "What we need is half a dozen Enoch Powells." To his credit Mr Walker says politely but firmly, "I am not sure I agree with that," before going on to explain that while his party is not against all immigration, it will curb its rise, including by changing a system "that discourages people from working" and so getting more Britons in jobs. To Mrs Smith's earlier complaint that "none of you are saying what you are doing about immigration", he explains: "We're not talking about immigration because last time it was the big story and the other things we were saying got drowned out. But we will deal with immigration."
This fairly standard exchange, as much a part of the real election as the TV debates, happens as Mr Walker is enthusiastically canvassing the semis and terraces of St Clements, Worcester, which has a better claim than most places in Britain to be the nuclear core of the 2010 election. It's not just that it's easily the most marginal ward in a highly marginal city (which incidentally has a non-white population of just 3.5 per cent, though some recent Portuguese and east European immigration) of which the authoritative Almanac of British Politics says: "Whoever wins the general election is likely to win the Worcester constituency." Or that "Worcester Woman", a demographic invention of John Major's strategists, famously defected to Tony Blair when the seat totemically went Labour in 1997. It's also that it was a council by-election in this very ward 10 years later that very nearly tipped the balance in favour of Gordon Brown going to the country during the honeymoon period when he had opinion poll leads of around 10 per cent.
The council seat went to Labour on a massive local swing of 17.5 percent in September 2007 and several respected commentators reported at the time that it had become a key factor in the deliberations at No 10 about whether to call an early general election. As it happened, there were reasons for discounting the result. The seat had been left vacant by the sudden emigration to New Zealand of the Conservative mayor, to the fury of his colleagues and constituents. The Tory-controlled council had just introduced wheelie-bins, a surprisingly unpopular innovation. And the female Conservative candidate was "exposed" as running an "erotic and sensual material" website in her spare time. Only, perhaps, in England. Nevertheless, if Brown had heeded the voters of St Clements ward, he would now be safe in Downing Street with just the popular mandate that will be starkly denied him this week. And that if St Clements – and the city of Worcester – now reverts to the Conservatives on Thursday, Cameron will not only be heading for the same address but quite possibly with an overall majority.
The Walker presence which has been built up since then in this emblematic Tory/Labour marginal also tells us us much about the Cameron Tory party in this election. He is up against Michael Foster, an able and popular Labour incumbent who is as energetic and personable as he is. But in an election when the Labour Party is broke, Mr Walker had the advantage in the long run-up to this campaign when he was nursing the seat not only of £30,000 of Lord Ashcroft's money but also other business donations, at least one of £10,000. His leaflets are highly professional; the anti-Brown posters on prominent sites across the city. Because the international financial PR company he works for, Finsbury – ironically founded by Roland Rudd, a long-time friend of Peter Mandelson's – has a progressive policy of allowing employees time off for civic and political purposes, he has not only been able to take his sabbatical during the campaign but has been able to come to Worcester every Friday since he became the candidate. And he has used the time well, among much else helping out with literacy teaching for an hour a week at a local primary school. While Labour MPs and candidates have long performed similar service in their constituencies, this was new for the Tories.
Mr Walker confesses that "when David Cameron first suggested it, some of us thought it was a gimmick, but now I think it's very worthwhile. Once you get involved you tend to stick at it and frankly politicians needed to do something to restore public trust." Mr Walker does not deny, of course, that it also does a lot to embed his electoral profile. Finally he has the extra bonus of being the son of Peter Walker, the former Tory Cabinet minister and a still well-remembered MP for Worcester, whom, at 32, he uncannily resembles in manner. Did he share his father's ideology, broadly on the "wet" left of the party? "I recently did a meeting when the biggest cheer I got was saying that I agreed with my father on everything except Europe," he says, adding hastily: "I'm Eurosceptic but not Europhobic." In the Tory office he has put up a pleasingly retro poster from the first general election his father fought as an MP in 1964. The face of Alec Douglas-Home stares out between the slogans "Straight Talk and Actions" and "Keep Ahead with the Conservatives" . When Douglas-Home was defeated – though Walker senior held the seat – it seemed like the end of an era. It was the last time that an old Etonian led the party in a general election.
Nothing of course, could be less like the Douglas-Home campaign than Cameron's, visually and in organisational terms the "best that money can buy" in the only half-denigratory admission of a Labour strategist, and much of it out of the Blair playbook from 1997. You could see it on television eight days ago with the cruel juxtaposition of the pictures of a static Brown giving a lengthy speech at a City Academy in Harrow, his one concession to Sunday informality an open-necked white shirt under his suit jacket, and Cameron, in a dark blue (genuinely) casual shirt surrounded by enthusiastic green T-shirted parents hoping to run their own school in Gomersall, dynamic, a little windswept, youthful, on the move. But you don't have to spend long with him to realise that there is more to it than the pictures or even the most fulsomely supportive press a Tory leader has enjoyed since the Thatcher-Kinnock years.
Like Blair, perhaps even more so, he is a good campaigner. Arriving in the main hall at Brine Leas High School in Nantwich in the welcome company of Take That's Gary Barlow, he seems, for a politician, almost hip. Before "Zoe and Kitty" – an engaging duo of performing school pupils – play their first number, the Goo Goo Dolls hit "Iris", he urges the children to take part in the planned national schools competition he has come to launch: "Watch out, Lady Gaga; watch out Florence and the Machine. We're coming to get you." When a pupil asks him about his own musical tastes, he claims to have become a Florence fan after the Brit awards before confessing to still liking "slightly depressing Eighties music: Radiohead, Blur, The Smiths, Oasis." He's careful to avoid hard-sell campaigning here. Asked by another whether the competition will go ahead if he doesn't win he says he hopes the other party leaders will take it up though – he gets a laugh with his only mild electoral pitch of the visit – "the only way of guaranteeing it happens is to return a Conservative government". His political reticence is well-judged; the school, a patently happy comprehensive commended as "outstanding" in the 2008 Ofsted report, is in many ways a triumph of Labour education policy, with a new £6m sixth-form block being built from the Schools Fund.
David Ince, 35, an enterprising quantity surveyor with the contractors Whittall Dixon, has put up his firm's sign on the grass outside the school so he can take a publicity photograph of the arriving Cameron against it. But Mr Ince, who temporarily lost his job post-crash, and has two children, four and 18 months, will, he says, be voting Labour; the "only reason", he explains, is "basically to keep my job." He is more optimistic that Labour will continue a school buildings programme than the Tories.
Cameron will be as sure-footed when at the end of a longish day he gets on a pallett, shirt-sleeved, to talk to workers at the Asda store in Wolverhampton. He listens carefully to the questions – calling each by their names on the labels attached to their green uniforms – and perhaps uses language just a shade more demotic at Asda than elsewhere – none of Blair's famous Essex glottal stops, but a slightly different choice of words. No, he won't be taxing "your pint of cider", but a Tory government will be doing more to curb the sale of drinks that "kids use to get off their heads" or "there's a big argument between me and the other lot". The "big" argument is over the issue of Labour's planned national insurance increase, which was an undoubted success for the Tories in the first week of the campaign, and has continued to resonate on the doorsteps since. The reason isn't hard to find and has almost nothing to do with the substance; while some experts estimate that the NI increase due to come in next year will have little medium-term impact on employment, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research estimates that the £6bn axe – which would fall this year – would cost 30,000-60,000 jobs and reduce growth by 0.1 to 0.2 per cent just as a very modest economic recovery has started tentatively to flicker into life. But "jobs tax" is a stunningly simple two-word message that's hard to beat. As is its claimed alternative, however wilfully misleading, "cutting waste". Cameron ends by warmly congratulating his audience. "We had more questions than we did in the debate last night. Maybe I should get a couple of pallets and get Gordon and Nick down to do it here." The joke goes down well.
For this is a pivotal day in the campaign, the day after the first TV debate and the point at which the full extent of Nick Clegg's success in it has become clear. When Cameron emerges for a stroll down the bus between Nantwich and Prestatyn it is already beginning to dawn on Cameron and his staff that the Liberal Democrats' poll rating is about to surge into the late twenties. William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, who is accompanying Cameron, briefly sits next to me and even starts musing on the possibility (if necessary, of course, as it now may not be) of a pact with the Liberal Democrats, suggesting that one of several, though perhaps not insuperable, problems could be the Lib Dems' opposition to nuclear power – which he points out is backed by both Labour and the Tories.
When Cameron himself strolls down the bus, if it has occurred to him – as it surely must have – that he has just made the biggest mistake of his career by agreeing to the TV debates he shows no sign of it. Instead he defends the decision by saying that it is a far better way of getting your message across than a "one-minute soundbite" on TV news, acknowledges Clegg's success – "'a plague on both your houses' is a great song to sing and there's not much you can do about it. He sang it very effectively." He says that he admired Clegg's line – when invited by Brown to agree with him about something – that "there's nothing to agree with" and then tells me with insouciance that it was always going to have an effect on the Liberal Democrats' showing and that "I think most people will say 'why didn't we do this 20 years ago? No front-runner has agreed to do it before. I'm the first one."
This is unflappability of a high order about the one event that has ensured the Tory poll rating has fallen by around 10 points despite the campaign. When he gets to the Scala at Prestatyn, however, the faithful are a little more restive. Cameron will tell his audience Blair-big tent-style that he has succeeded in "bringing together a broader bigger conservative family". But it doesn't look much like it here. This is light years away from Brine Leas or even Asda, an old-style Tory occasion: suits for the men; jerseys, pearls and sensible shoes for the women. And there are clearly some who want him to go on the attack against the Lib Dems, especially on Europe, not a wholly easy subject for Cameron given his party's affiliation to what Clegg calls in the second debate "the nutters" on the European Parliament right. But while Cameron repeats the old mantra that the Tories want to "be in Europe but not run by Europe", he seeks instead to suborn the voters now being ominously courted by Clegg. His party, he insists, is now one in which "small l" liberals and conservatives can unite. Another activist, also perturbed about the Lib Dem surge presses him on PR. After all, though the questioner doesn't say this, had he not told BBC political editor Nick Robinson, in a 2008 programme about Disraeli, how much he admired his illustrious predecessor for the "huge leap forward" he had made by outflanking Gladstone on political reform in 1867? Could he ever contemplate such a "leap" himself to bring the liberals on board, rather than as his allies now increasingly assert he will, soldier on in a minority government for as long as he can? No way, to judge by his firm reply at Prestatyn, apparently spoken from the heart. He asserts that the huge advantage of the present system is that it allows the voters decisively "to throw a government out of office" – like the present one. It's then that he utters his one modest heresy of the day: "It happened to us in 1997, I know it was painful, but frankly it was probably necessary."
The Lib Dem surge appears to have another consequence—one that cannot fail to raise questions about the huge challenges Cameron will face if, as we have to assume is the likeliest outcome, he is on his way to No 10. And this is the unveiling, however briefly, of Kenneth Clarke. You can see why. The afternoon after the second TV debate Clarke is terrific as usual, his Hush Puppies pounding the pavements of Cardiff and Penarth, his genial but lethal attacks on his opponents booming out to anyone who will listen. He's probably the only politician in Britain who would dare to express his total ignorance of the TV sitcom Gavin and Stacey when we arrive in bright sunshine at Marco's promenade café on the coast at Barry Island – one of the series' main locations – and where Clarke gratefully accepts a chocolate ice cream cornet.
Hadn't Clegg got the better of Cameron the previous night? "It's not a TV celebrity talent contest. David Cameron is a fresh heavyweight politician who leads the party that has a programme with which he can credibly form a new government that can tackle the debt. Nick's a good guy. I like Nick, but he's basically got a platform which they put together when they obviously didn't think they'd figure seriously in the election" or "The economy's in a terrible mess. In 1997 Gordon said he'd stick to my plans on tax, plans on spending. And he did for three years. It seems like a dream world now." And so on.
Two points are striking, however, about the exchanges on the South Wales coast. One is how many non-Conservative voters respond to him. "Well, you're my favourite Tory," one woman says before darting out of the hardware shop where Clarke has politely invited her support. "You're the acceptable face of Conservatism," another, Ellen Williams, from Ebbw Vale, tells him. And the other is how often Clarke mentions the – at this stage of the campaign – almost taboo subject of the deficit. Clarke may well be right that Cameron is a "fresh heavyweight" but you can't help wondering whether all his team – including George Osborne – are as up to the hugely daunting task ahead as he would be. Clarke himself, of course, is having none of it. "George would be an excellent Chancellor," he tells the customers in the hardware shop. "In fact I rather wish he'd been the Chancellor after me."
On the bus to Prestatyn, Cameron, asked why he did not mention the "Big Society" – the overarching theme of the party's manifesto launch – in the first TV debate, said that the questions had been "a bit gritty" – "questiony questions". But the reply raises inevitable issues about the extremely "gritty" tasks his government will immediately face, if he forms one. His range of specific spending pledges – reinforced further by Cameron's promise to Andrew Marr not to reduce "front line services" and yet cut the record deficit with a balance which it must be assumed will place far greater emphasis on spending cuts than tax increases compared with Labour's two third-one third, will be a circle hard to square. You don't have to accept the judgement attributed to Mervyn King, the Bank of England Governor, that the government which tackles the deficit will be so unpopular as to be out of office for a generation, to worry about what is in store, even if the "Big Society" is not the cover for the kind of wholesale state shrinking which Labour claims and the Tories adamantly deny it is.
Wilson's 1974 minority government simply produced a few handouts and marked time until the next election. This Cameron will not want to do. In a declaration last January, now buried, at least for the campaign, he said it was "moral cowardice" not to tear up the 2010 spending plans in the light of the deficit. It may not be easy to predict the outcome next Thursday, but if Cameron wins, we are all truly in the dark about what may follow.
Tomorrow: Donald Macintyre on Gordon BrownReuse content