The 24-hour party people spring into action
Cameron kicked off with a jog, Clegg with a pep talk, and Brown with eggs on toast. Andy McSmith reports on a gruelling day when the campaigning began in earnest
Wednesday 07 April 2010
06.30 David Cameron was the first leader to show his face yesterday, as he emerged in shorts and T-shirt bearing mugs of tea for the journalists outside his London home. "You're not getting this every day but let's get off to a good start," he said. Then it was off for a "quick" run, and he jogged away along the Grand Union Canal. The photographers got their first photo of the day when a slightly red-faced Mr Cameron jogged back into sight, 35 minutes later, and vanished inside to get changed and have breakfast. He was "feeling good" about the coming campaign, he said.
8.30 Nick Clegg – also "feeling good" as he left his Putney home about 45 minutes later – delivered the first televised speech of the campaign. Cameras had been invited into the press room at the Liberal Democrats' Cowley Street headquarters to record the pep talk he gave to party staff. The main point? No one should think the election would be a "two-horse race".
9.15 While this was going on, Gordon Brown was still behind closed doors, and the date of the election had not officially been set. The Prime Minister started the day at 7am by asking aides: "Are you ready for it?" before settling down to eggs on toast. His first formal meeting was with NSID, the Cabinet sub-committee dealing with security, where they discussed Afghanistan. The Cabinet routinely meets at 10 Downing Street on Tuesday mornings, though this meeting was an unusual one. Every member of the Cabinet was there. Nick Brown, the Chief Whip, gave a brief report on what they call "wash up", when Parliament rushes through any remaining legislation on which political parties can all agree. When he had finished, Gordon Brown said: "We now turn to current events" – setting off a ripple of laughter around the room. He handed every cabinet minister a list of Labour's achievements since 1997, just in case anyone had forgotten why they were asking for another five years in power.
9.30 Meanwhile, David Cameron was getting onto his first soapbox of the campaign. To be precise, it was two boxes of A4 paper pushed together in the middle of the Conservatives' third-floor headquarters on Millbank, so that he could give party staff their morale boosting talk. "Generations of Conservatives would give their eye teeth to be where you are now," he told them. "Together we are going to make history."
10.05 Unusually, Gordon Brown was smiling as his cavalcade arrived at Buckingham Palace, just 15 minutes after the Queen had arrived by helicopter from Windsor. Knowing that there would be another helicopter overhead televising the Prime Minister's cavalcade as it moved along The Mall, Tory activists were stationed on the pavement holding "Vote for Change" banners which they pointed at the sky. The Cabinet remained in Downing Street for a political discussion led by Business Secretary Peter Mandelson.
10.23 Gordon Brown emerged from the Palace still looking cheerful. He was the ninth Prime Minister to come to the Palace to ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament during her long reign, the first being Anthony Eden, who had been in office for only a few days when he came to her in April 1955. John Major and Tony Blair came twice to ask for dissolutions, and Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher came three times, so in all it was the 14th time she had received this request. She has never yet said no.
10.33 Meanwhile David and Samantha Cameron had been driven along Millbank, past the Commons and across Westminster Bridge to County Hall, where a crowd of around 200 Tory activists were waiting to hear the first open-air speech of the campaign. Cameron was wearing a blue suit and blue tie, and had been cleverly positioned so you could see the bridge and the Houses of Parliament in the background. His message was that this is "the most important general election for a generation." He also made a direct attack on his main opponent, telling his cheering audience: "You don't have to put up with five more years of Gordon Brown."
10.46 There was a risk Cameron would still be on his feet when Gordon Brown emerged on the steps of 10 Downing Street, in which case the cameras might have cut away before the speech was finished. In fact, his timing was impeccable. He stopped speaking at 10.43, and three minutes later, the entire Cabinet piled out of 10 Downing Street to stand in line behind their leader. This was the moment when Gordon Brown told the nation what everyone already knew, that the election date was 6 May. The first few minutes of the speech were spoilt by a fault in the loudspeaker system which made it sound as if Brown was speaking under heavy rainfall, when actually it was brilliant sunshine. He did not mention the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats, but restricted himself to a somewhat downbeat appeal for a mandate to carry on.
11.00 Back inside, there was a staff meeting in Downing Street's Pillared Room for civil servants and the two dozen or more political advisers who were emptying their desks, not knowing whether they will ever set foot in Downing Street again. Sarah Brown and her two young sons were there to thank everyone. Gordon told a self-deprecatory story about when they were courting, and he decided to cook for her in the small flat above 10 Downing Street where he lived while the Blair family occupied the large flat above No 11. Everything was going well, he revealed, until he realised that instead of a table cloth, he had put a duvet cover on the table. "But it didn't stand in the way of romance blossoming," he said. The staff gave him and Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell a round of applause.
11.47 An hour later, Gordon and Sarah Brown emerged from Downing Street to drive to St Pancras Station. They arrived at 12.05, but it took another 20 minutes to board the train as they made slow progress along the station platform, shaking hands and exchanging comments with members of the public. Other passengers on the 12.25 to Rochester had been told not to board the front four coaches, though most would not have known for whom those coaches were reserved until they saw the Prime Minister striding past.
12.00 While Brown was glad- handing at St Pancras, Nick Clegg was meeting Vince Cable and members of his strategy team at the headquarters of the Work Foundation, where the Liberal Democrats will hold a press conference at 7.30 every morning for the rest of the campaign. At around 2.30pm, Clegg boarded his battle bus and set off for Watford, a three-way marginal seat.
14.20 David Cameron made Birmingham his first stop outside London. At 2.20 he arrived at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, in the marginal Labour seat of Birmingham Edgbaston – the same hospital where Tony Blair was waylaid by Sharon Storer on the day Labour launched its manifesto in the 2001 general election. She had wanted to know why there was no bed for her partner, who had cancer. But the worst that awaited David Cameron as he arrived was a camera crew, who threw a question at him and gave him an opportunity to stress that the NHS was his party's "number-one priority". At the same time, Gordon Brown was at a supermarket in Rochester, where he and Sarah dropped in for a chat with staff. Rochester is a new constituency which Labour hopes to win although nominally it has a small Tory majority.
15.25 Brown's next call was at the home of Labour supporter Harry Keen in Rainham, Kent. This is the Gillingham constituency, which Labour's Paul Clark held in 2005 with a majority of 254. If the opinion polls have got it right, Rochester and Gillingham will both be Tory seats in five weeks' time. As this was going on, Nick Clegg's battle bus rolled into Watford, and at 3.30 he began a question and answer session with community volunteers at the Watford YMCA. He was back on his battle bus at 4.13. By then, David Cameron had left Birmingham to address a rally in Leeds.
By the evening, all three leaders were back where they started, in London. Today is technically a normal day in the House of Commons, when Gordon Brown takes Prime Minister's Questions, possibly for the last time.
It's not an occasion that any of them would want to miss.
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