The 2010 General Election Guide

Liberal Democrats: Shaping up into a lean, mean, fighting machine

Nick Clegg's party is focusing its limited resources on a small number of high-profile and well-funded battles. Nigel Morris reports

The most challenging Liberal Democrat general election campaign in the party's history is being masterminded from a wood-panelled first-floor room in Westminster.

Party strategists will meet every day at 6am to grapple with the planning of a contest that could end with Nick Clegg's troops holding the balance of power in a hung parliament.

Paradoxically, it could also be the first election in the party's 22-year existence in which its number of MPs falls, with fears at senior levels that it could lose about 15 of the 63 seats it is defending.

Meetings in the boardroom at the party's headquarters – sparsely decorated apart from a massive orange backdrop used for press conferences – will be chaired by John Sharkey. It is not his first general election: as joint managing director of Saatchi and Saatchi, he was responsible for Margaret Thatcher's advertising campaign in 1987. Mr Sharkey, who is now Mr Clegg's key strategist, will steer attempts to project the Liberal Democrats' core messages, but he will also need to ensure the party can respond swiftly to unexpected turns in the election campaign.

Around the table with him will be Chris Fox, the party's chief executive, Hilary Stephenson, its campaigns and elections director, and Andrew Stunell, the MP for Hazel Grove, who boasts an encyclopaedic knowledge of parliamentary constituencies. They will often be joined by Jonny Oakes, the director of election communications, and by Danny Alexander, Mr Clegg's chief of staff and author of the Liberal Democrat election manifesto.

Mr Clegg, who is certain to clock up many more miles than his rivals as he tours the party's parliamentary outposts from western Cornwall to northern Scotland, will be brought up to speed by mobile phone as he heads for his 7.30am press conferences.

Traditionally, the Liberal Democrats have had the earliest daily slot of the three major parties – and have always offered bacon sandwiches (and vegetarian alternatives) as an incentive to sleep-deprived journalists to attend. They hope the press conferences – whose themes were sketched out months ago to cover the expected four-week election campaign – will help to set the day's agenda. In practice they will be an opportunity to boost television exposure for Mr Clegg, who remains far less well known to the public than Gordon Brown or David Cameron.

The Liberal Democrat leader will also be intensively briefed on developing campaign issues to avoid a repetition of Charles Kennedy's disastrous early-morning press conference in 2005 when he struggled to recall details of plans to replace the council tax with a local income tax.

Mr Clegg will visit dozens of constituencies during the campaign, either by bus or plane, with the party planning a "south defensive, north offensive" strategy. He is, however, determined to return home every night to be with his wife, Miriam, and their three young sons, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel.

In rural and suburban strongholds such as the South-west of England and South-west London, the party's objective will be to resist Conservative incursions, although they have hopes of capturing the Hertfordshire seats of Watford and St Albans.

Further north, the party hopes to make gains in more urban areas, such as Liverpool, Hull, Durham and Edinburgh, as well as in Sheffield Central, which neighbours Mr Clegg's home constituency. Inevitably, the party will attempt to play on his northern political roots during the campaign, even if Sheffield Hallam is actually one of the country's most middle-class seats.

In some areas Mr Clegg will try to recreate the spirit of his "town hall meetings", in which he fields questions from members of the public. So far the Liberal Democrat leader has staged 60 of these sessions, which he says are invaluable for reaching outside the Westminster bubble.

Mr Oakes will be at his side on the road, along with Lena Pietsch, his press secretary, and Mike Girling, his press officer, who will be charged with obtaining the all-important coverage in regional television bulletins and in local newspapers.

A separate itinerary has been drawn up for the Treasury spokesman, Vince Cable, who is regarded by many in the party as their prime asset. But the two men will also make joint appearances at several high-profile campaign meetings.

A rota of the frontbenchers considered the party's best television performers will meanwhile be on stand-by in London to give instant reactions to developments in the election campaign. They include Mr Alexander; Chris Huhne, the home affairs spokesman; David Laws, the education spokesman; and Sarah Teather, the housing spokeswoman.

Two former Liberal Democrat leaders have also been drafted in for the campaign. Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon is taking charge of the operation to defend the party's 11 seats in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset, while Sir Menzies Campbell will campaign in the Borders seats of Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk and Berwick-upon-Tweed.

In common with the Tory and Labour camps, the issue of the three televised debates has preoccupied the party. Never before has a Liberal Democrat leader been afforded such wide-ranging publicity, and Mr Clegg's advisers have already poured huge resources into preparing for the historic encounters.

Long before the election was called, they had already held a series of brain-storming meetings where they debated the questions he could expect to face. Mr Clegg has also received plentiful advice on his body language, manner and appearance for the sessions.

Another crucial moment for the party will be the publication early in the campaign of its election manifesto, which will crystallise the messages that the Liberal Democrats want to get across.

Far less of a policy wish-list than previous manifestos, it will focus on four key themes: fair taxes, extra spending on schools in poorer areas, rebalancing the economy and reforming the political system.

Absent are the cherished Liberal Democrat commitments to free childcare and free personal care for the elderly, omissions which have been forced on to the backburner by the financial crisis.

The party now only promises to phase out university tuition fees over the course of two parliaments, a line that dismays some candidates in seats with large student populations.

But strategists are adamant that the slimmed-down manifesto is distinctive enough to strike a chord with electors. One source even says the party's pitch can be boiled down to one word: fairness.

Senior figures are being told not to allow themselves to be drawn into protracted speculation over how the Liberal Democrats would behave in a hung parliament – and to stick instead to the official line that they would negotiate with whichever party has the biggest "mandate" to govern after the election. It is an instruction they will find hard to obey if the polls point to an election outcome that is too hard to call.

The party expects to spend about £3m in this campaign, a fraction of the budget that the Tories or Labour will be able to call upon.

But the Liberal Democrats are targeting their resources on a smaller number of seats, with the result that they will be able to fight a high-profile and well-funded campaign in up to 100 constituencies.

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