David Cameron rides wind of change

UK politicians copy US president's slogan and use same personnel reflecting the Obama effect in the British general election campaign by all three major parties.

LONDON // It was a familiar scene. A boyish-looking candidate for the highest office in the land stood in his shirtsleeves amid a crowd of adoring supporters and repeated again and again the need for "change". Except this was not Barack Obama on the campaign trail in the United States in 2008. This was David Cameron on the stump in the UK this month.

It was just the latest manifestation of how the Obama effect is profoundly influencing the way the British general election campaign is being conducted by all three major parties and, particularly, by Mr Cameron, the Conservative leader. He even has an attractive, immaculately groomed and articulate wife at his side as the Obamas and Camerons appear to morph into one. Even the words seem the same, only the accents are different.

Both the Tories and the ruling Labour Party are actively pursuing an Obama-esque approach in the run-up to the May 6 election by importing not only the tactics but also the personnel that brought success to the Democrats in the presidential race. Bill Knapp and Anita Dunn from the Squier Knapp Dunn political consultancy in Washington are currently coaching Mr Cameron, just as they did Mr Obama. Labour have got Michael Sheehan, a US speech coach who also worked on the Obama campaign, advising the prime minister, Gordon Brown, along with the veteran Democrat strategist Joel Benenson.

The influence of both sets of American advisers is regarded as crucial as Messrs Brown and Cameron, plus the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, prepare to go head-to-head in live, televised debates - the first time such events have been staged in British election history. Mr Sheehan is regarded as having the toughest task on his hands: Mr Brown often comes across as a dour Scot, uneasy with himself when the studio lights go on. Mr Cameron seems much more at ease in the spotlight.

But these have become more than solo acts. In another first for UK elections, spouses are playing a prominent role in the campaign (except for Mr Clegg's wife who, as a successful lawyer, prefers to be at work during the week). So, just as Mr Obama had Michelle at his side in 2008, "Dave" Cameron has his Samantha, while Mr Brown has roped in his articulate and media-savvy wife, Sarah, to bring a touch of humanity to a leader often described as aloof.

The Obama effect, however, is not just being felt in how the leaders portray themselves and their parties, but also in the actual policies they are pursuing. While the economy and the massive national deficit remain the overriding issues, both parties have been talking a lot about the importance of "the family". Mr Cameron is promising a small but significant tax break for married couples; Mr Brown is promising new fathers a month's paternity leave.

Both parties have also been trying to get across a message of hope to the "forgotten people" in British society. When the Conservatives unveil their election manifesto today it will centre on the theme of "we're all in this together". Richard Reeves, the director of Demos, a left-of-centre think tank, said that, much as Mr Obama did, both the main political parties in Britain "have concluded that a reordering of the relationship between the individual and the state is going to be part of the election campaign".

While Mr Obama's tactics obviously worked in the US, there is some scepticism about how successful they might be on the other side of the Atlantic. Prof Michael Cox, a co-director of the centre for international affairs and diplomacy at the London School of Economics, said that while Mr Obama tapped "into a wellspring of hope for the future", the situation in Britain today is very different. Quite aside from widespread disenchantment with politicians in the wake of last year's scandal that revealed many MPs were fiddling their parliamentary expenses, the huge deficit that Britain has run up probably means there will be deep cuts in public services no matter who wins the election.

"There's not too much unbounded optimism out there," says Prof Cox. "There are some pretty unfortunate and unpleasant decisions that will have to be taken by whoever is in power next." dsapsted@thenational.ae