David Cameron enjoyed a rare ‘cut-through’ moment over the weekend, where something he said in a campaign speech was actually discussed, not on the Andrew Marr show, but on Match of the Day.
This would have been a triumph, had Gary Lineker and co. not been mocking the PM’s failure to accurately recall which football team he supports. (He’s supposed to be an Aston Villa fan, but implied he actually supported West Ham.)
Now, let’s keep this in perspective. In the pantheon of campaign gaffes, this ranks nowhere near Gordon Brown’s ‘bigot-gate’ encounter with Gillian Duffy in 2010. On that occasion, the rolling news channels stuck with the story all afternoon, repeatedly showing Brown’s shame-faced reaction as the comments were replayed to him in a radio studio, sticking with it until he emerged from Mrs Duffy’s home after a cuppa and a grovelling apology.
‘Villa-gate’ hasn’t caused quite the same stir. And understandably so. But what both incidents have in common is that they have the capacity to reinforce a perception that politicians are not authentic. Brown’s slightly awkward, but ultimately cordial, chat with Mrs Duffy was completely overshadowed by his candid remark in private (he thought) that he had found her “bigoted”. So how could we, as voters, treat anything else he said in public with anything other than suspicion?
And so it is with David Cameron and his football affiliations. He has claimed over the years, not with any great conviction, to be an Aston Villa supporter. It has never been central to his public persona, but, like many political leaders, Cameron seemed to think he ought to seem like the sort of bloke who likes “the footie”. Because it is regarded as accepted fact that most “ordinary blokes” like “the footie”.
But most “ordinary blokes” would sooner forget their own name than what team they support. So when the PM accidentally declared that he wished people would support West Ham, it was seized upon by journalists and social-media users alike as a moment when ‘the mask slipped’ and Cameron revealed an Alan Partridge-esque lack of football knowledge. Maybe this is all very unfair and the PM really is a true Claret and Blue, but it doesn’t really matter. The perception will not easily be shifted.
The timing of the incident was also unfortunate, since it closely preceded Cameron’s decision to inject more “passion” into his campaign stump speeches. Facing criticism, even from his own side, that his heart was not in the campaign, Cameron has sought in the last two days to cut a more animated figure, jacket and tie off, no autocue, shouting until he gets hoarse about how “bloody lively” he feels about the election.
The problem he has is the authenticity question. Will people really believe this passion? Some journalists have noted that aides to the PM had pre-briefed them that Cameron would be giving more passionate speeches. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this is a rather manufactured type of passion, designed to counter internal criticism and get some good clips on the news of the PM looking animated. But will the football slip-up engender a degree of scepticism among voters about the authenticity of this change in tack?
The other question to consider is whether the more passionate Cameron is really what people want to see? Was the idea at the outset of this campaign not that the smooth, statesmanlike Cameron would comfortably see off the awkward, ‘geeky’ Miliband? Might there in fact be a risk that in trying to show a more worked-up side to himself, Cameron risks looking less Prime Ministerial and more desperate?
This is a tricky balance that he and his team will need to strike. It is made even more difficult by the fact that Ed Miliband’s media performances grow steadily more assured the longer the campaign runs on. His appearance on Andrew Marr was the latest example of Miliband seeming to rather enjoy himself in front of the cameras, jousting with Marr and even Boris Johnson, and enjoying some degree of success.
There are still some major obstacles for Miliband to overcome – not least the relentlessly dire polling in Scotland – but to witness the public performances of the two prospective Prime Ministers in this campaign, it is the Labour leader who seems more at ease and as though he is running the campaign he hoped to all along.
But David Cameron is still hoping he can sneak a win in injury time.