David Cameron was in Chester to announce plans for new school buildings.
“Eighty-seven days” was the refrain of the day. Because of the coalition agreement on a Fixed-Term Parliament, the date of the election has been known for five years. “I’ve never known an election where everything is so bolted down,” said one of the Prime Minister’s entourage. “So something’s going to go wrong.”
But not this day. Everything had been planned and Cameron’s time was used with ruthless efficiency.
The trip was to a marginal constituency. The local MP, Stephen Mosley, is defending a 5.5 percentage point majority. If the opinion polls don’t move, he’s a goner. He needs the Conservatives to be two points ahead in the national polls to hold on.
When Cameron was asked by a regional TV reporter at the school if the visit were not just electioneering, he was unembarrassed. “I don’t hide from people that there is a big choice to be made,” he said. “Competence with the Conservatives versus chaos with Labour.”
He repeated the same lines with lively sincerity for both TV interviews and with all three local print journalists. The Government’s school building plans were doing the work three times as quickly as Labour’s failed programme, and for a third of the cost. It is only message discipline, but Cameron is good at it.
Earlier he had been, with Mosley, the local MP, waist-deep in a sea of blue-uniformed children in the playground. Good pictures, and he obviously enjoys talking to the children, the same ages as his own. Then a meeting with staff and a visit to Juniper class, who showed him their ideas for what they would like their new school to be like (quiet rooms, mainly).
On the door is the Juniper class charter: “Be respectful of property and each other.” Property before people: very Conservative. “Always tell the truth even if you’re in a bad situation.” Good advice for life and politics. “Be sensible.” Cannot argue with that.
So far, the pre-campaign has been thoroughly sensible and rigorously controlled. The message is the economy. Only competent management of the economy can pay for school improvements such as these. Cameron didn’t meet members of the public on this trip, although he strode past them at railway stations. He met school children, staff – at one point doubling back in the school corridor to shake the hand of a chap in overalls whose job was to hold the old school buildings together – and, with conveyor-belt efficiency, journalists.
The last engagement was a 10-minute interview with ITV’s Party People programme, in a school waiting room. Another tour de briefing force, mentioning the Chester and Cheshire growth fund and the success of Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool. Then it was off to the station for the train back to London.
On the train the Prime Minister had his red box and a stack of gadgets: BlackBerry, iPhone 6 Plus, iPad mini and an iPad. He is only the second Prime Minister to use email. Tony Blair was paper and telephone only. Gordon Brown used email and caused civil service mayhem by crossing all lines of procedure. Cameron is the first to integrate modern tech into prime ministerial routines.
The mood in the Prime Minister’s party was downbeat and determined, as I wrote at the weekend. They feel that they have done the best they can with a difficult economic inheritance. The promise of an EU referendum has managed the Tory party’s divisions (as Rafael Behr writes today). They are frustrated to see Labour retain a small lead in the opinion polls but Cameron clings to the hope that swing voters will “break quite late”. Until they do, it is all about discipline in the face of adversity.