Enter the Beckett fanatic to play Clegg for Brown

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Until a few years ago Theo Bertram was an academic who specialised in the existential works of Samuel Beckett.

Yesterday, as he advised Gordon Brown on how to outshine Nick Clegg in tonight's leaders' debate, Mr Bertram might have had reason to recall those characters in Waiting for Godot, who cling to hope when, at heart, they know that all is hopeless.

Mr Bertram, now a Downing Street adviser, has taken the role of Nick Clegg in rehearsals for the session, impressing the Prime Minister with his knack for forecasting the Liberal Democrat leader's lines of attack.

Yesterday he spent several hours preparing for the debate with Mr Brown in a Cardiff hotel, with Tony Blair's former press secretary Alastair Campbell playing the role of Tory leader David Cameron.

Mr Bertram swapped an academic career for the rough and tumble of Labour politics. After spells working for an MP and the party, he was recruited by Tony Blair for the Downing Street research and information unit. He survived the transition to Gordon Brown and flourished under the new regime.

One former colleague said: "He is very bright. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of politics and a good eye for a punchy phrase."

Mr Brown is expected to attempt to portray the Liberal Democrats as soft on defence by highlighting their support for scrapping the replacement for the Trident missile system.

David Cameron had a full rehearsal for the debate at the Tory headquarters on Tuesday, with shadow immigration minister Damian Green playing Gordon Brown and shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt in the role of Nick Clegg. The Conservative leader had a final run-through of his lines with aides last night.