When I studied for O-levels (I'm dating myself - shoot me, I'm middle-aged) we had to answer essay questions which began "Compare and contrast..." So, that's what I did today. I drove down to Durham university to compare and contrast David Miliband and Nick Clegg. Miliband was on in the morning and Clegg was the star turn of the afternoon. A coup for Durham on the last full day of campaigning. (The Tories offered Lord Bates. Durham turned him down. Presumably because no one knows who he is.)
My Durham visit was like travelling into the future in my own personal, oak-panelled time-machine. Miliband, Labour's Foreign Secretary (and love-interest of Hilary Clinton), is generally tipped as one of the frontrunners in any Labour leadership contest. Lord Peter Mandelson reportedly believes he should be anointed in the job rather than have to go through the ignominy of standing for election. Just hearing that, makes you want to hate Miliband - yet that's impossible because watching him makes you think what might have been had he been leader this time - more importantly, what might well be, next time. Perhaps it's a generational thing? Gordon looks old, and Miliband is such a good fit against David Cameron and Clegg.
The students didn't give him an easy ride, but he listened attentively and handled such issues as Afghanistan and torture and human rights abuses with conviction. He was impressive and persuasive and a great communicator. Above all, he was substantive.
Then there was Nick Clegg. Cor blimey. As the excitable audience at the Durham Union waited for him in the upstairs room (much as I imagine the apostles waited for the Holy Spirit to come among them), outside a 10-deep Clegg-manic crowd gathered with helium-filled balloons and orange diamond placards. There was even a woman in a bunny costume with a sign saying only Labour would preserve the ban on hunting. (They must have been fresh out of fox suits.) When Clegg arrived, and again when he left, there was cheering and jeering. (The jeering came from the Tory supporters by the way - I wouldn't want you to think the Liberal Democrats had gone off him.)
Perhaps the stage-managed nature of the event itself would have been less noticeable if I hadn't seen Miliband do his thing to a student audience in the self-same room just hours before. Nothing was left to chance. Miliband had stood with benches of students in front and to either side of him. The fourth side of the square was finished off by the time Clegg appeared with more rows of fresh-faced students. Also the audience was stacked with lines of Liberal Democrat students. You could tell they were Liberal Democrats because they wore tee-shirts advising us we could make a difference and they had beards. Even the girls. (That's not entirely true, but you get the picture.) This self-selecting audience meant the questions were, by and large much easier, which was a shame, and when they weren't that easy, (for instance on MPs' expenses and tactical voting), Clegg came across as tetchy. Also Miliband had spoken to the students, but from the angle I was sitting at, it looked very like Clegg was speaking directly into the camera again when he gave his opening address. (I could be wrong on that, but even so, his message about what to do if you were feeling let down by the other parties was patently not aimed at these first-time voters.)
I'll admit it. I was disappointed because I thought Clegg was very likeable during the debates and I was impressed by his straight talking. But his eve-of-poll hustle for votes in Durham was an exercise in style.
Having said that, he is cute. Gathered in a little conclave of university journalists and the regional press, I momentarily forgot to concentrate so impressed was I by his clean-cut features. I went off him again, however, when he wouldn't answer my question on whether he could work with David Miliband in a Lib-Lab pact. He preferred my question on how he felt to be the story of the campaign. (It's nothing to do with how he feels, he's just pleased the Liberal Democrats have brought the campaign to life because whatever happens the most important thing of all is that people are starting to develop trust and an enthusiasm for politics again. I believed him - really I did.)