The night of the first televised leaders debate – Thursday 15 April 2010 – was a night that changed my life forever. I was one of a small number of party press officers sent to the ‘spin room’ at Manchester’s Hilton hotel to speak to accompany one of our ‘big hitters’ – in this case Paddy Ashdown, Chris Huhne and David Laws – as they made the case to reporters and broadcasters that our man had won and the others had bombed.
The debate took place in the Granada TV studios in Manchester. A few hundred yards up the road was the Hilton, where the spin room was set up in a grand, high-ceilinged ballroom. At one end was a cinema-style screen that would broadcast the event live. In front of it were banks and banks of desks where print journalists bashed away at laptops, and at the rear of the room, on raised scaffolding, were the broadcast points, where the BBC, ITV and Sky positioned their cameras for live reaction and post-debate analysis.
We rocked up about an hour and a half before the start of the show, mingled with the gathering reporters and munched away on crap sandwiches and coronation chicken wraps. My main job for the evening was to accompany Chris Huhne around the room, making sure he spoke to the right people at the right time.
As the room got progressively more crowded and I got the rare opportunity to see some of the big beasts of British politics rubbing shoulders with each other. William Hague, David Miliband, Alan Johnson, Theresa May – all milling around chatting in the same room. At one point George Osborne, who is taller than you think, rushed past me down the aisle in the middle of the desks in an odd manner I would later see much more of – head first, like a sprinter reaching for the finish line. It is one of the biggest regrets of my political career that, as he brushed past me, I had to the opportunity to raise my leg and send him sprawling across the room, carried by his own headstrong momentum. It would have even looked like an accident. I have to live with the knowledge that I had that chance and wasted it for the rest of my life.
Shortly before the debate started we retreated to our private green room off the adjacent corridor, one of three rooms side by side that spinners from each party had been assigned to. In each one there were a dozen or so plastic chairs pointed at a large flat screen TV, with a printer and a phone line that would connect us directly to the ITV producers in case we wanted to take issue with anything during the debate. We wouldn’t need it.
After drawing lots earlier in the week, we knew Nick would make his opening statement first. With our hearts racing, ITV’s dramatic theme music started and Alistair Stewart introduced the debate as ‘history in the making’. And then the camera focused on Nick.
I believe the way things are is not the way things have to be. You’re going to be told tonight by these two that the only choice you can make is between two old parties who’ve been running things for years. I’m here to persuade you that there is an alternative.
I think we have a fantastic opportunity to do things differently for once. If we do things differently, we can create the fair society, the fair country we all want: a fair tax system; better schools; an economy no longer held hostage by greedy bankers; decent, open politics. Those are the changes I believe in. I really wouldn’t be standing here tonight if I didn’t think they were all possible.
So don’t let anyone tell you that the only choice is old politics. We can do something new; we can do something different this time. That’s what I’m about; that’s what the Liberal Democrats offer.
With that, Nick raced away. He was fresh, authoritative, straight-talking. Cameron came across like he was trying to flog you a knackered Vauxhall Corsa. Brown came across like a knackered Vauxhall Corsa. And when the moment came, as Brown and Cameron squabbled, Nick came out with the killer line, the one that would be clipped and repeated hundreds of times during the campaign: “the more they attack each other, the more they sound exactly the same.”
We were watching all this unfold in our green room. We all thought it was going well but it was absolutely impossible to get any sense of perspective. Every now and again, the Tories in the room next door, audible through the thin partition wall, would erupt in theatrical cheers when they thought their man had landed a blow. We watched in near silence. A few minutes in, Paddy decided he needed to be in the spin room, so that his reaction to Nick could be seen by the journalists. In he went, to cheer and grin in exaggerated fashion when Nick spoke and frown and shake his head when the others did.
Eventually, as the debate reached its end, Jonny Oates, who was then our director of comms, gathered us together to agree our lines. Nick was the clear winner. He had proven that this is not a two-horse race etc etc. So we re-entered the spin room with newspaper journalists furiously typing away their reports just seconds away from first edition deadlines. As Chris and I moved round the room, it was incredible. We didn’t need to spin. Everyone, pretty much unanimously, agreed that Nick had won.
And then two things happened. Firstly, the instant polls came in. Both YouGov and ComRes had Nick trouncing the other two. The former made it Clegg 51%, Cameron 29% and Brown 19%. The latter made it Clegg 42%, Cameron 26% and Brown 20%.
Secondly, as Chris was chatting away congenially with BBC Radio Five Live’s man mountain John Pienaar, I spotted out of the corner of my eye a number of journalists in the distance dashing off to the left. I turned and saw that the Dark Lord himself, Peter Mandelson, had wafted into the room. A crowd of reporters half a dozen deep was forming around him, with cameras pointed at him and hacks elbowing each other, notepads in hand. I dashed over too. Then I heard his first words: “Nick Clegg won…” Astonishing.*
After a few minutes, our job done for us, we made our way back to the green room to collect our things. As a few of us press officers were milling around in there, scooping up phone chargers and packing away laptops, Paddy came back in and, in suitably dramatic Paddy fashion, used his serious voice to give us a stern warning.
“They’ll come for us now,” he said. “The Tories. Their friends in the press. They’ll come for us and it won’t be pretty. We need to be ready for it.”
As my colleague Louise Phillips and I stumbled back to our hotel (the press office budget didn’t tend to stretch to Hiltons), drunk on nothing more than the strange sensation of success, I was chain smoking my nervous energy away and she was busy trying to download newspaper front pages on her Blackberry. I craned my head over her shoulder as the Times splash slowly loaded up. The headline was ENTER THE OUTSIDER beneath a huge photograph of Nick entering the studio, gazing upwards beatifically with Cameron and Brown in the background. I dropped my fag.
It was followed by the Telegraph: CLEGG’S STAR RISES IN GREAT TV SHOWDOWN.
The Guardian: CLEGG SEIZES HIS MOMENT.
And the Independent: CLEGG COMES OF AGE.
I am not ashamed to say that I had a few drinks that night.
*To be fair to Mandy, the full sentence was “Nick Clegg won on style but Gordon Brown won on substance”, but when the arch spinner of the New Labour era has to concede in his opening sentence that your man had won, even at some level, you knew something strange was happening.