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Labour poster turns Cameron into a cult hero

The Milibands' attempt to portray Tory leader as a throwback to the Eighties backfires spectacularly
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Rather like Gene Hunt's 1984 Audi Quattro if it were driven on the streets today, Labour's first poster of the 2010 election campaign backfired yesterday with its portrayal of David Cameron as the Ashes to Ashes cult TV character.

The cabinet minister brothers and potential Labour leadership rivals David and Ed Miliband unveiled the image of the Tory leader alongside the words "Don't let him take Britain back to the 1980s."

The poster, designed by a 24-year-old Labour activist as part of a competition organised by Labour's advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, was intended to warn voters that, under a Tory government, the country would revert to the days of strife and unemployment of the Thatcher decade.

David Miliband said: "It was a very different Britain. It was a meaner, more brutal Britain. David Cameron joined the Conservative Party in the 1980s because he admired much of what Mrs Thatcher was doing."

The former deputy prime minister John Prescott said: "Our poster makes Cameron look like a second-hand car dealer trying to flog a clapped-out Thatcherite banger of a party."

Yet Labour strategists apparently did not account for the huge popularity and cult status of DCI Hunt, played by Philip Glenister in the BBC TV series, and the Tories scored the latest victory in the election poster wars.

Across political blogs and on Twitter yesterday, Tory activists were jubilant that Mr Cameron had been portrayed as Hunt.

Even some Labour supporters were dismayed. The leading left-wing blogger Alex Smith, of LabourList, said the image made the Tory leader "look cool, young and fairly modern" rather than a dangerous 1980s throwback.

Within hours, the Conservatives responded with their own image of Mr Cameron as the snakeskin-booted detective perched on the bonnet of his car. It carried the words: "Fire up the Quattro. It's time for change."

The Tory poster was designed yesterday by Euro RSCG, which was last week replaced as the party's principal ad agency by M&C Saatchi.

The Labour poster was designed by Jacob Quagliozzi of St Albans. Robert Senior, chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi, had praised Mr Quagliozzi's design as one that was "brutally simple" and "captures a lot in very few words".

Labour, whose election funds are paltry compared to the Conservatives', launched the competition in an apparent bid to save money.

The poster skirmish handed a victory to the Tories after a bitterly fought week between the parties over tax and spending.

As the build-up intensified to Gordon Brown's expected announcement on Tuesday of the election date, the Miliband brothers made a pitch for the youth vote when they made their first campaigning appearance together. The event, in Basildon, seemed designed by Labour to portray the pair as the party's next generation.

Meanwhile, Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Business, suggested Mr Brown might not serve a full five-year term if he won on 6 May. Setting out the choice before voters, he told The Times: "They either go five more years or four or three, or however many it is, with the person they know they can depend on, or switch horses mid-stream before we have fully come through the recession, and in doing so take a heck of a gamble."

Advertising wars: Angels and demons ... when campaigns falter

Labour's Gene Hunt poster isn't the first time a political advertising campaign has backfired.

In January 1997, the Tories unveiled a poster, designed by Steve Hilton, now Mr Cameron's head of strategy, to kick off John Major's campaign. It depicted Tony Blair with "demon eyes", with the warning "New Labour, New Danger", but it was heavily criticised by the Advertising Standards Authority.

The debut poster, from Euro RSCG, in the Tories' 2010 campaign showed an apparently airbrushed Mr Cameron next to the slogan "We can't go on like this – I'll cut the deficit, not the NHS." The poster inspired hundreds of spoofs.

M&C Saatchi's opening shot were posters showing a grinning Gordon Brown next to slogans such as "I took billions from pensions – vote for me." However, viewed from a distance, the image of a smiling PM perhaps did not convey the right message.

Jane Merrick