Prime Minister Gordon Brown set May 6th as the date for the UK national election in 2010. Just before 10.00 on April 6th the Prime Minister left 10, Downing Street for the short drive to Buckingham Palace where, at 10.02 he asked Queen Elizabeth II to dissolve Parliament. Shortly after this the Prime Minister returned to 10, Downing Street where outside the famous front door he stood with the Cabinet to formally announce the day of the election – even if it had not been the best kept political secret of recent weeks.
The two main opposition party leaders also hit the campaign trail at the same time – David Cameron for the Conservatives and Nick Clegg for the Liberal Democrats.
Between April 7th and April 9th, the House of Commons was engaged in what is known in parliamentary parlance as ‘washing up’ – getting as many bills through Parliament as is possible. Parliament was formally dissolved on Monday April 12th and those MP’s who were planning to stay on and fight for their seats returned to their constituencies. However, more than 150 MP’s retired on April 12th, the largest number at the end of one Parliament in recent years.
All three main parties already had a campaign team in place.
The Labour Party’s nominal head of campaigning was Douglas Alexander, the Developments Secretary. However, it was generally accepted within the media that the real power lay with the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson. Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former press officer, was Labour’s advisor on “strategic communication”.
The Conservative Party selected the shadow chancellor, George Osbourne, as the party’s general election coordinator. Former party leader and current shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, also played a key role in the party’s election strategy.
The Liberal Democrat Party’s campaign managers were Chris Huhme and Danny Alexander. A backroom advisor was John Sharkey, a former executive at Saatchi and Saatchi.
At the start of the campaign, Labour stated that it had a campaign budget of £8 million but hoped to increase that in the initial stages of the campaign to £10 million. The Conservatives stated that they had a campaign fund of £18 million and hoped to increase this during the campaign. The Liberal Democrats had a campaign fund of less than £5 million.
Just before the formal announcement of May 6th, many political pundits believed that Labour scored an own goal by producing a poster of David Cameron dressed as fictional police detective Gene Hunt from the BBC series ‘Ashes to Ashes’ with the comment ‘Don’t let him drag us back to the 1980’s’ on it. Within hours the Conservative Party produced their own poster with their leader dressed as Gene Hunt with the phrase ‘Fire up the Quattro, it’s time for a change’. Political commentators stated that Labour failed to realise that the fictional detective was, in fact, a popular television character and that being associated with him had done Cameron no harm.
The three main parties released their manifestoes between April 12th and April 14th. On April 15th, the three main party leaders faced one another in the first of three head-to-heads US-style live on ITV. The second of the live debates was on April 23rd on Sky while the last was on April 29th on BBC.
The first major poll published by YouGov on the day the election was announced gave the Conservatives a ten-point lead over Labour (41% to 31%) with the Lib Dems on 18%.
The same poll also stated that the public put as a priority the economy, immigration/asylum and health as the top three issues that a future government would have to deal with.
On Thursday April 15th each of the three main party leaders made history by becoming the first to take part in a live television broadcast hosted by ITV – the first of three such events. Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg faced questions for just over 90 minutes. The broadcast run over the allotted time by 5 minutes to allow each of the party leaders to make a summary speech. The general view of the media was that Nick Clegg won this broadcast In one poll published on Friday 16th, the Liberal Democrats increased their share of support from the average of 19/20% to 26% - a bounce factor of the television broadcast.
The second live television debate was held on Thursday 22nd and was live on Sky. It was also shown live on the BBC’s politics website. It is generally accepted that both Cameron and Brown learned the lessons from the April 15th broadcast and that in one sense the only loser could have been Clegg. This was because his star had risen so high on April 15th that the only way it could go was down. This proved to be the case. The poll of polls made both Cameron and Clegg very close with Brown not far behind. Some individual polls put all three equal. However, there was not a great deal between all three in any poll. By Friday, the polls suggested that the Liberal Democrats were now the bona fide second party with Labour – as an incumbent government - trailing a poor third.
The week between the second television broadcast and the third concentrated on the various issues surrounding a ‘hung parliament’.
The third live debate was held on Thursday April 29th in Birmingham. This was one day after Prime Minister Gordon Brown was heard to privately refer to a Labour voter as a bigot after she questioned him on immigration. The Prime Minister was still attached to a live microphone and made the comment in the back of his car. Anti-Labour media organisations had a field day and the Prime Minister visited the lady later the same day to apologise.
The third debate was centred on the economy and the proposals of each party on how it would further bring the country out of recession. The poll of polls the following day made David Cameron the winner with the viewing public, with Nick Clegg second and Gordon Brown third.
In the final weekend before the election, political pundits continued to believe that the UK would have a hung parliament. One prediction was that Labour would come third in terms of popular vote but would win more MP’s than the Liberal Democrats as a result of FPTP but that the Lib Dems would be the second most popular party in terms of votes won. However, all polls pointed to a hung parliament with the prospect that the country could be politically paralysed if a compromise was not found quickly.