For the past couple of weeks I've been lucky enough to attend the leaders' debates courtesy of Sky News, who've plonked me in front of Adam Boulton as a quirky alternative to politicians saying that their leader proved himself better than Cicero in putting points across.
This life as an election pundit sounds glamorous, but is in fact possibly only one step up from being a sex slave. No slur on the Sky News people, who are professional and have never struck me as part of the propaganda arm of the Murdoch/ Cameron machine, but more a reflection of the experience that awaits when you step into Spin Alley, the heaving ballroom of fluster and reportage that houses a hundred journalists, a lot of body odour, and a legion of political spokespeople all calmly yet desperately trying to persuade you that "our guy may not have won, technically, but, given the level of expectation stacked against him, along with the frankly disgraceful series of inaccurate remarks made by the other two, to have then seemed not to have won such a low level of debate is so different from being last in a high-level debate, that it is, indeed, the very opposite, which is why it's a worthy achievement tantamount to victory itself".
In Spin Alley, objectivity is on holiday, and out to play come a kindergarten of political operatives spinning away. All journalists gravitate towards them, so suddenly a well-ordered room arranged in neat rows turns into a miasma of mess and three distinct clumps of suits and cameras surrounding the three spinners. This is how galaxies form in space, and the spinners are black holes of information at the centre, drawing all minds towards them and crushing them into infinitesimally thin particles devoid of form and intelligence.
The forces of spin in the room are so convulsive that they generate their own satellite spinners; last week, the shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling was heard spinning that, in the practice debates where he was pretending to be Gordon Brown, he outclassed the real David Cameron. This week, a Labour sub-spinner spun that David Miliband would be replacing Peter Mandelson as the spinner for Gordon Brown, therefore reflecting the fact they were placing less emphasis on spin. If Dr Seuss ever wrote a stage play, it would look and sound like this.
Meantime, all the broadcast networks set up little pens inside which their reporters try to unspin what's been spun in front of them and for the benefit of live TV cameras. Walking down the row, listening to the collective chirruping, it's hard not to think that is what it would be like being locked inside a battery farm for the night.
As a "commentator", though, I have professional obligations to enter the pen, and that's when the slave auction starts. Once you make your face and voice available for anyone who's interested, you realise that a whole army of programme-makers are assessing just how interesting they think you actually are at any given moment. And so last week, seconds away from being about to speak in front of someone's live TV camera, I was pulled back and replaced by Alastair Campbell, who happened to be in the area and was clearly a more interesting catch. Having only a few seconds to compose myself I caught Campbell muttering: "If it isn't the bloke who's been making a living out of me for the past 10 years."
This is now the most dangerous moment for me. I'm standing alone in a room where everyone else has someone to talk to. It's the worst party you've ever been to, yet even worse, because there are live TV cameras happening to film you in the back of their shot as you stand through several gradations of loneliness. And then, salvation. Someone runs up and says, "Quickly, there's George Osborne. He's doing BBC. If he then walks right he's going to someone else, so that means you go left and you're on." We watch Osborne, he turns right. I dash up the stairs to the left. Meantime, Osborne does a U-turn, goes left too, we wedge each other on the stairs, his minder gives him a push, and he's on and I'm now in the back of shot desperately trying to look popular.
So what does it all mean? Have I managed to get a sense of the convulsive shifts taking place in British politics and a more intimate reading of the mind-sets of the three parties? Well, after a fashion, yes. Being a professional watcher of the debates does force you into analysing every verbal tic. Sometimes, this gets too detailed. Did David Cameron really say "I was with some of our forces in Afghanistan and I was really blown away", did Gordon Brown really refer to "guys and girls" and say "I was speaking to young people only yesterday", and did Nick Clegg actually argue that, if only we came together, we could do something different this time about the Pope?
But underneath it all, I can detect a sense in the room of where this is all heading. For me, these debates so far have been about the increasingly large question mark over David Cameron's head. Cameron is having an existential crisis. This is partly because Cameron himself has no single identity but is a composite of other people's; a bit of Blair here, a bit of Thatcher there. His "big society" idea resembles Lyndon Johnson's "great society" pitch of the early 1960s, while his "the great ignored" phrase is a reworking of Richard Nixon's "silent majority". Going into the debates as "the other bloke" seemed a good idea, but falls apart when there is indeed another bloke there too.
Nick Clegg has become the David Cameron it's actually OK to like, and David Cameron, who always thought he was the most likeable David Cameron because he was the only one, doesn't quite know how to respond. This week, his way out of the identity theft was to thieve one back and his best moments came when he tried to be the most Nick Clegg of the three. He stared down the camera, but also distanced himself from Brown and Clegg and, at one point, reworked Clegg's pitch from last week by pointing to the other two politicians squabbling and telling everyone he was the only man to do something different.
And so in Spin Alley, I could see relieved Labour spinners, happy Clegg ones, and pretty thorough but not ecstatic Cameronians. They are sitting on top of the polls, but not by much, they are possibly on course to be the biggest party, but not with a majority, and they've hit a brick wall of indifference from a lot of people. They're not despondent, but I can honestly say I haven't spoken to a Tory politico or a pro-Conservative journalist in the past week who has anything other than a settled, mildly annoyed look of forbearance behind their eyes.
They're in a place at the moment which they know is just not good enough, but which may well have to do. I came away from these debates with nothing more striking than the reflection that all the young hopefuls in the Conservative Party ranks look like first-time home-owners who've just bought a house they kind of like, but only because the previous day they excitedly rang the estate agents to be told the house they fell in love with has already gone.
Armando Iannucci is the director and co-writer of The Thick of It, the latest series of which has just been released on DVD
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