It was a call from out of the blue. Right-wing newspapers are used to getting calls from the Conservative Party, but this one was less cordial than usual.
"We are a little concerned about Nick Clegg," the senior Tory told the editor. "And we were wondering what you plan to do about it."
The Conservatives have built up a huge war chest to fight their most important election for a generation, and the money is coming in at more than £1m a week. But this was not a question of money. When Tory strategists analysed the first leaders' debate 10 days ago, it was not Mr Clegg's bravura performance that concerned them most; it was the public's reaction to any criticism of the new political hero.
"They told us they had watched the animated 'worm' across the screens, showing how people responded to the debate," a senior executive at the newspaper in question explained. "It went through the floor when Gordon Brown or David Cameron went for Clegg. Basically, they decided they couldn't risk going negative on him, so they wanted us to do it. They asked us to come in and discuss the situation."
It was an appeal repeated, it seems, to several Tory-leaning papers. The Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, who is co-ordinating the Tory campaign, met correspondents last Monday to discuss the quandary.
Two days after the meeting, on the eve of the second debate, four Tory-supporting papers ran front-page assaults on Mr Clegg – ranging from the Telegraph's allegation that he had paid businessmen's money into his personal account, to the Mail's claims that he had committed a "Nazi slur" against the British people.
There is no evidence that the stories came from the Tories, however, the attacks could hardly have been better timed – or presented – had they been produced in Central Office.
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