On the road with three captains aiming to lead their country

“Not seen crowds like this since Paddy was having his affair,” said a snapper from the Press Association as we prepared to watch politics’ coming man address hordes of students at Oxford Brookes University. And, after one young girl had turned to her friend, blushing and giggling, and exclaimed “I don’t believe it. I’ve just spoken to Nick Clegg!” it was clear that things had changed.

Gordon Brown went south on Monday, David Cameron went north on Tuesday, and on Wednesday Clegg occupied the middle ground, and very jolly they all were, too. One seasoned journalist told me on the Prime Minister’s battle bus: “It is always the losers who are the most relaxed; it is the winners who get uptight.”

This homily served only to confuse, since all three campaigns were so relaxed and so, well, English, that it was hard to think that an election was taking place at all. Where were the attack dogs, the negative barbs, the Alastair Campbells? Where was the nastiness? These were three days of which Cameron, with all his emphasis on mending the so-called broken society, no doubt approved: they were civil, respectful and disciplined.

The PM’s sunny disposition was the biggest surprise of all, especially since the Monday sketch in this newspaper had made him sound like George’s (of Marvellous Medicine fame) noxious grandmother. He looked dog-tired but, after 13 years in a high-pressure environment and committed to a punishing schedule that put the two younger men to shame, he could be forgiven that.

His suit was crisp, his cuticles well kept and — pre-Rochdale this — his tongue and temper were in check and his microphones switched off at the appropriate times. He joshed with the BBC’s man about the footy scores on the train to Bournemouth, poured warm syrup over the Royal College of Nursing on arrival, showered the Asda staff in Weymouth with praise, then hosted a garden party for the faithful.

Just once, when he was asked about the manoeuvrings of his colleagues, did his mood darken, his shoulders twitch and that curious rictus smile appear. The words “Lib Dems” and “Nick Clegg” did not pass his lips at all, and only once, at the garden party for believers, were the Tories mentioned — dismissed, actually, “as too big a risk for Britain to take”.

Possibly, defeat had been internalised long ago. Certainly, his down-to-earth and likeable campaign team gave that impression and no amount of urging from the PM could dispel the notion that we were witnessing the fag end of empire. At times, his events seemed not so much low-key as subterranean, and completely lacking in strategy. When he stood in an Asda warehouse, near a sign that said “No Rubbish”, with phones going off during his speech and an Asda trainee sniggering in the background, he seemed to be taking his humility a little too far.

The PM insisted that he had been rejuvenated by his trips around the country, and that his travels by train were bringing him into contact with what political types like to call “real people”. Certainly there was no question of segregating himself and travelling anything other than cattle class, although if this reflected the character of the man, it also highlighted one of Labour’s real problems in this campaign: the party is skint. “We just don’t have the Belize billions,” said an aide.

The plush nature of the Cameron and Clegg coaches contrasted sharply with Labour’s bog-standard 50-seater. Those travelling with the challengers enjoyed leather seats, high-definition satellite television, microwaves, nibbles, wi-fi and glossy magazines. The Tories have three coaches named, curiously, as are the tunnels in the Great Escape: Tom, Dick and Harry.

Cameron was not afraid of getting his hands dirty, and doing a bit of tunnelling himself; his morning was spent around the sink estates of Camberwell and Peckham in South London, surrounded by high-rises, balconies with Union Jacks, satellite dishes and the day’s washing.

He had a message for these estates blighted by knife crime. His set-piece on the “Big Society” was the most interesting speech of the three days, although he needed the presence of Brooke Kinsella, the 25-year-old sister of Ben who was stabbed to death two years ago, to give his big idea meaning, context and relevance. This was classic Conservatism, with a modern twist: “conservative ends by progressive means”, and an almost Obama-esque call to arms to a society, according to Cameron, whose notion of personal responsibility has been misplaced under a welter of government initiatives.

To observe his polished performance, and, a day later, Clegg’s holding the students in the palm of his hand, it was clear that they have what the Prime Minister doesn’t: an ability to connect, to sprinkle a little stardust around. The Prime Minister would be happier discussing policy with wonks than making small talk with voters or, heaven forbid, inspiring them.

He is ill at ease in public, something, I suspect, that comes from a deep shyness and an adolescence that brought academic advancement (he went to university at 16) at the expense of social development. As all grammar school boys like me, who suffered a social (not academic) inferiority complex at university will tell you, one thing that public school boys like Cameron and Clegg do not lack is confidence.

Even in the Bolton Lads and Girls Club, surrounded by youths from broken families whose days had been spent more in contact with drink and drugs than school, Cameron’s self- assurance didn’t desert him. Mind you, after he challenged a youth at table tennis (beaten 11-7) it was obvious that he had not listened to the adage, which because of the weather up north, should not be ignored: never take on a northerner at an indoor sport.

As for most people, Clegg was something of a mystery to me, so I was interested to get a chance to interview him. Is he too untried, too inexperienced? Does he have any doubts about his ability to actually do the job? His answer was candid: “Like anybody else, I have doubts but a little self-doubt is a healthy thing. Fanatical self-belief can lead people to take some seriously daft decisions.”

One of the criticisms of this campaign has been the leaders’ unwillingness to engage with those of a different persuasion, shuffling from safe house to safe house while the real world looks on, yearning for debate. I didn’t experience that. Brown faced a hostile audience of Wave FM listeners in Southampton (“in the small, dark hours of the night are you proud of the country you’ve created?” asked one, before listing a litany of failings.) Things were not so stage-managed that the leaders were insulated from reality, but there was an absence of serious debate. Politicians of all colours, brought home in Rochdale later in the week, seemed petrified of upsetting voters. We have lost the art of debate and disagreement.

I had the real sense that a great personal tragedy is developing for the PM. Here is this decent man, who believes absolutely in his ability to deliver, and in the ability of the State to improve lives, and yet who is likely to be thrown out of office with Labour’s lowest share of the vote in an age. It will be not just a dismissal of new Labour, but also of Gordon Brown himself.

It was the PM, though, who provided the most touching, humane moment of my three days on the campaign trail. In Southampton, a middle-aged, dyslexic, long-term unemployed man asked Brown a question, and broke down in doing so. “You’re a good man,” said Brown. “I’ll come and see you later.”

He was as good as his word, and again the man, in attempting to describe his plight, dissolved into tears, prompting the PM to give him a warm-hearted and prolonged bear hug. As they stood there, hugging and rocking, this man about to be thrown out of a job, and a man who could not get a job, it was hard to know who to feel more sympathy for.