Two years ago, they stood confidently side by side in the Rose Garden of 10 Downing Street and invited journalists to throw any questions they liked at them. It was a confident dawn for the men in charge. "Here we are, this is where we belong" was the event's subliminal message. They were in jokey mood, with Nick Clegg pretending to walk off in mock umbrage at what David Cameron said about him.
There were no jokes yesterday during their double act on the floor of CNH Tractors in Basildon, which the Prime Minister described as Britain's last tractor factory. Here, questions from journalists were strictly rationed, and came after the factory workers had had their chance to raise their concerns.
The message the two men wanted to convey was twofold – that the economy takes first place in their list of concerns; and that the Coalition is working, despite its internal strains. Lords reform, over which the Tory right is now causing grief, is "sensible", but "not the most important thing," Mr Cameron stressed. Mr Clegg concurred. Another message, it seems, is that for our political leaders, the only way is Essex.
Only hours before this double act descended on Basildon, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, held a question-and-answer session in Harlow, where Labour made gains in last week's council election. His message was that the Coalition is out of touch; Labour is in touch.
Why Essex? Decades of political history are at play here. When living standards were rising, working-class families moved out of the council estates of London's East End into towns such as Harlow and Basildon, and gradually broke free from their parents' tribal loyalty to the Labour Party.
Margaret Thatcher convinced them that their future was with the free market, which would allow them to own their homes and spend their money as they chose, and coaxed them into voting Tory.
The moment when Labour knew they had lost the 1992 general election was when they heard that they had failed to win back Basildon. Tony Blair's great achievement was to persuade Essex man and Essex woman – and their equivalents, "Worcester woman" and "Mondeo man" – that they could vote Labour and still enjoy the fruits of the free market.
But house prices in Essex have increased by 155 per cent in 15 years, compared with a 54 per cent rise in average incomes. In the past 12 months, according to Labour researchers, long-term youth unemployment in Essex has jumped 233 per cent. The same people who aspired to climb the social ladder in the good years may now be hoping that politics will protect them from the worst rigours of the market.
David Cameron hopes that the old Thatcherite vision of a property owning democracy and a shrinking state can still work its magic in Essex.
What Ed Miliband suspects is that the Government is being seen to be abandoning Essex man and woman to cope with austerity without any help.
Each of the main party leaders was pitching for the support of the same people, and on the same ground – the economy. Which of them gets the message right is what will decide the next general election.
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