THE campaign for the 2015 general election was the most presidential the UK has seen – and one of the longest.
It kicked off before Easter with David Cameron and Ed Miliband being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman and then a seven-way leaders’ TV debate – the only head-to-head which David Cameron would agreed to.
Mr Miliband came out better from the televised events than many people had expected. But the real star to emerge was SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon. She had been largely unknown south of the Border, but an instant poll after the first debate made her the winner.
Ms Sturgeon and the other Scottish party leaders spent plenty time out and about through the campaign, meeting voters and stating their case. There were visits to farms, play sessions at nurseries, street rallies and constituency visits.
But down south, the election was judged to be lacklustre and uneventful, despite what should have been an exciting battle for votes between two parties tied in the polls and with everything to play for. The UK party leaders were almost exclusively seen at controlled, invitation-only events and hardly ever went on walkabouts. Gordon Brown’s “Gillian Duffy moment” in 2010 seems to have scared politicians off wanting to engage with real people when so much is at stake.
And coverage of the 2015 campaign nearly always focused on the leaders. There were few headline appearances by Cabinet colleagues or opposition frontbenchers.
This election was also different in another way – the move to fixed-term parliaments meant there was no longer the speculation and anticipation about when it would be called. The date had been known for five years, so the campaigning inevitably started well before the traditional four-week run-up.
The Labour and Tory manifesto launches three weeks out from polling day were hailed as evidence of a new phenomenon – “political cross-dressing”. Labour, eager to persuade voters they could be trusted with the economy, pledged a “budget responsibility lock” with no additional borrowing required to fund its spending plans and the aim of a budget surplus by the end of the parliament, while the Tories promised an extra £8 billion for the NHS without detailing where the money would come from and tried to rebrand themselves as “the party of working people”.
The Tories also stirred constitutional controversy by promising to exclude Scottish MPs from key Commons votes, including a new “English rate of income tax”. Labour said it was a “brutal betrayal” of the cross-party Smith Commission.
The SNP won the contest for the best manifesto launch when it chose the dramatic surroundings of the climbing arena at Ratho to unveil its programme.
Nicola Sturgeon offered “a hand of friendship” to people in other parts of the UK and promised her party would not only fight to “make Scotland stronger” but also use its influence to bring about “real and positive change” for ordinary people across the UK.
The next day, the Scottish Liberal Democrats held their manifesto launch in a cafe in South Queensferry. Leader Willie Rennie said his party was standing on “a record of progress in government and vision of the future”.
South of the Border, Ed Miliband’s image got a boost when he was mobbed by a group of screaming women on a hen party. The bride-to-be – called Nicola – went on board the battles bus to meet the Labour leader, who was also filmed high-fiving other members of the group. This was followed by another phenomenon “Milifandom” – a craze, which saw teenage girls post social media tributes, including Photoshopped images of him looking cool. But Mr Miliband said he didn’t think One Direction had any cause to worry.
Meanwhile, the Tories stepped up their attack on the prospect of a Labour government supported by the SNP – “a marriage made in hell,” David Cameron claimed.
Former PM John Major warned the SNP would “create merry hell” if it held the balance of power and could subject a Labour government to “a daily dose of political blackmail”.
Home Secretary Theresa May went even further, describing the possibility of a post-election deal between Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon as “the biggest constitutional crisis since the abdication”.
This apparent questioning of the legitimacy of SNP MPs having any influence at Westminster was branded by Ms Sturgeon “an affront to democracy”. Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson distanced herself from the remarks, which she said were “hyperbole”.
Ms Davidson, who won plaudits for some feisty performances in the TV debates, grabbed attention with her campaign appearances, including having a go at playing the bagpipes at The Mound and staging a Thatcher-style photocall on a tank.
The pro-UK parties all sought to put pressure on the SNP on the question of a second referendum.
When the issue was raised at an STV Scottish leaders’ debate, with Nicola Sturgeon asked whether she would continue to pursue independence, she said the election was not a rerun of the referendum – but when asked about ruling out including another referendum in the manifesto for next year’s Holyrood election, she said: “That’s another matter,” producing boos from the audience.
The next night, she had refined the position and said there would need to be a “material change” in circumstances before the SNP pressed for another referendum. That remained the party’s stance from then on.
Labour steadily toughened its line on rejecting a deal with the Nationalists. Mr Miliband first ruled out a coalition, then any deal. And he used the last of the UK-wide TV events, to declare: “If the price of a Labour government is a deal with the SNP it’s not going to happen.”
The SNP claimed that amounted to saying he would rather see David Cameron back in Downing Street than work with Ms Sturgeon and her colleagues. But the next night Mr Miliband insisted would never put the Tories into power.
Mr Miliband found himself labelled “a joke” by Mr Cameron for agreeing to an interview with comedian Russell Brand, who had caused controversy by urging people not to vote. However, the YouTube chat went down well with most of those who watched – and Brand later urged fans to vote Labour, except in Scotland.
As the campaign drew to a close, Labour got another boost from a visit by cross-dressing comedian Eddie Izzard in his high heels. His campaign stop in Glasgow with Jim Murphy was cut short after protesters shouted them down, but he walked along Princes Street with candidates Mark Lazarowicz and Cammy Day and urged people to “get the Tories out”.
Ms Sturgeon took to the skies in a helicopter emblazoned with a giant picture of herself. The First Minister – now, according to one poll, the most popular leader across all age groups in Scotland, England and Wales – rounded off her campaign with a speech at The Mound on Wednesday, surrounded by banks of TV cameras.
If it had not been for the Scottish dimension, the election campaign might well have gone down as failing to live up to the importance of the moment.