Matthew Norman: Come on Dave, don't be chicken

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The Independent Online

This wondrously unpredictable election campaign has its first incontestable winner. I refer to the Daily Mirror and its deployment of the young man who puts David Schilling's more outré Ladies' Day titfers in the shade by following David Cameron while wearing a fluffy chicken head as a hat. Before we go on, some good news. The tripartite Vulcan mind meld conjoining Ed Balls, Charlie Whelan and Mirror political supremo Kevin Maguire into the one mental entity is holding. That resolved, back to the chicken. What most impresses about using poultry to highlight alleged cowardice is the originality. Pedants might point out that the tactic has been tried before, but who remembers the Tories doing it to Mr Tony Blair in 1997? The record book shows how spiffingly that panned out, so small wonder Mr Whelan-Balls-Maguire hunted out such an encouraging precedent. If the chicken provided Mr Cameron with one of his better moments, when on Tuesday he joshed with it in as endearing a fashion as tightly gritted teeth allowed, that's not how the Mirror chose to report it on yesterday's front page. But it is excused the confusion on a news day so frantic that only one tiny paragraph could be spared to gloss over Labour's abysmal showing in every poll published the previous evening. The key thing when facing brutal humiliation, the Mirror reminds us, is retaining professional self-respect. This enables a newspaper to bounce back quickly, live long and prosper.

Over at the Sun, the challenge is a little different. The problem for Sun editor Dominic Mohan and his boss Rebekah Brooks is the one Hillary Clinton struggled with two years ago: how to cope graciously with a sense of entitlement betrayed. It took Hillary months to crack it, and may take the Sun longer should Mr Cameron get stuffed. Whether turning its guns on Nick Clegg will have an impact is an intriguing question, but we may be on the cusp of something important in media life. If the Sun's assassination attempt fails to dent Mr Clegg, what will this say about Mr Murdoch's hegemony? This is an area explored, in a Guardian piece, by former Sun editor David Yelland, who is gleeful at the prospect of his old boss losing his grip. David's mind has cleared remarkably since he stopped drinking. Whether a man once admired for his ability to yield motor control the instant his nostrils came within 70 feet of a barmaid's apron was technically an alcoholic is hard to call. But he got a decent book out of taking the pledge, and ever since then David has decanted nothing and recanted all. We are thrilled to welcome a sinner that repenteth into the arms of those the regnant Murdoch-government axis has delighted long enough.

Also in quite a pickle is the Daily Mail, an ever less mighty juggernaut as its agenda-setting power fades by the month. It too has started on Mr Clegg, but with little of the Sun's self-assurance. Mannerly editor Paul Dacre, seldom a poster boy before for pencil-sucking reflectiveness, is bamboozled. He admires Gordon Brown personally but loathes his politics. He distrusts David Cameron personally and politically, but must support him. And while he likes chunks of the Lib Dem platform, he's mystified and scared by the surge. Yesterday's full-page leader, which first shrieked at how "a hung parliament could destroy our political system" and then celebrated the "stability" provided by the current system that makes that nightmare possible, was a riot of befuddlement. You see what's spooking him. If Middle England concludes that the Lib Dems reflect its values better than the Tories, that's quite a challenge to his authority and omniscience. Seismic political change tends to send powerful aftershocks through newspapers, and you wonder whether Paul's heart will still be in it if his readers place Daily Mail didacticism among the Great Ignored.

Recalling Mr Cameron's thoughts on the result of too many Tweets, to the first of a three-part series. Twat of the Week is open to members of the political class who endlessly share their pithy electoral thoughts on Twitter. The runner up is John Prescott, who unleashes a stream of winsome, exclamation mark-infested consciousness from whichever parallel universe he happens to be visiting at the time. But the inaugural winner is likable Labour Europhile Denis MacShane for this on Tuesday. "Just picked up The Times with Dave's pic on front page. Looks uncannily like Al Gore in 2000. Gore good man and Dave nice(ish) but electable?" That would be the Al Gore who was unelected only in the eyes of the Georges and Jeb Bush and five members of the Supreme Court? Another well-selected precedent.

The final word goes, as it should, to Melanie Phillips. "Unfortunately Cameron has gone along with Labour and the British intelligentsia in moving the centre of political gravity to the left," blogs Her Imperial Madness. "Thus the Conservative Party effectively agrees that the true common ground of political and public life is actually an extremist position." I'll spend a few days working on this. I think she's saying that even a majority-held central position is axiomatically extremist if it isn't hers. But still early doors.