Hats off to Cameron? Party toasts comeback before Paxman grilling

Conservatives

David Cameron risked stepping outside his protective ring of minders and spin-doctors yesterday morning to visit a covered market in the City of London.

His willingness to mingle with ordinary traders and shoppers was a sign of increased confidence, after what was acknowledged to have been a stronger performance by the Conservative Party contender at the second of the leaders' debates.

Tory officials claimed that Mr Cameron had reclaimed some of the ground he was losing to Nick Clegg, as the leader who embodied change.

Mr Cameron maintained his composure during a BBC interview with Jeremy Paxman in which he dismissed claims that the party would put up VAT if they won the general election, while insisting his first Budget would focus on cutting spending.

Mr Cameron said his party had identified "streams" of spending that would be reduced, adding that many programmes in government had "got out of control". He said some of his savings would come from shedding jobs, but denied that meant compulsory redundancies.

During the 30-minute grilling, Mr Cameron indicated that the North-east of England and Northern Ireland would be among regions where government spending would be cut.

It prompted an angry backlash from Labour's Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liam Byrne, who said Mr Cameron had failed to "give one example of where his savings would come from or where the departmental cuts would fall".

Earlier in the day, journalists had been tipped off that Mr Cameron was going to join London's Mayor, Boris Johnson, on his annual St George's Day visit to Leadenhall Market.

The two of them made a slow tour of market stalls, amid a crush of television crews, newspaper photographers, autograph hunters and curious members of the public.

They passed close by The Belles of London City, a trio of athletic female Morris Dancers from Hackney, who carried on dancing unfazed by the passing scrum.

The show included a "Raspberry Fool", who hit passers-by over the head with a red stick. Beneath the raspberry make-up, the "Fool" was Terry Frisch, from Harrow, who said afterwards: "I didn't know this was going to be a political event. We just came here to dance. I'm not voting for them. I'm voting Liberal Democrat. It's brilliant the way the leaders' debates have opened it up."

The crowd was so tightly packed that the two Tories were separated from their minders for most of the visit. Mr Cameron was handed a sausage by one trader, took a bite, insisted it was delicious, then looked about for a member of his staff to take it off him – but there was no one there.

It appeared that the Tory leader was doomed either to eat the whole sausage or to keep hold of it for the entire visit, until at last a voice in the crowd said: "Hello David!" It was Michael McManus, a veteran Conservative with ambitions to be an MP. "Ah hello!" said a relieved Mr Cameron. "You can have this" – and he shoved the half-eaten sausage into Mr McManus's hand. Mr McManus was one of a troop of Tory activists who had had a mysterious summons to be at Leadenhall Market, but did not know until they arrived that their leader would be there.

A Tory spokesman said: "We are very buoyed up today. The mood here is better than it has been for a week."

Two down, one to go

Strengths

More relaxed. He sought to remind the public: "If you don't want Brown as Prime Minister, I am the only likely alternative." Strong when "out-Clegging" Clegg by staring into the camera and distancing himself from the other two parties.

Weaknesses

Caught out looking pleased with himself – an offshoot of his natural cockiness; eyes rove around nervously when not talking, which can look shifty. Clegg caught him out on immigration ("Is it 10,000? 10 million? You are proposing a cap but you don't know what the cap will be"): an own goal.

Tips for the future

Be careful when calling for change – voters may opt for Clegg. Missed a chance to toast Clegg on Europe.

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