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38 days ... and still neck-and-neck


There's still no clear leader in the race for No 10 between David Cameron and Ed Miliband

There's still no clear leader in the race for No 10 between David Cameron and Ed Miliband

There's still no clear leader in the race for No 10 between David Cameron and Ed Miliband

The most-tightly controlled General Election campaign of modern times is drawing to an end with little indication that voters are anywhere nearer making up their minds who they want to run the country.

Over 38 gruelling days, the party leaders have racked up thousands of miles visiting dozens of constituencies in what all seem to agree is the most important election in a generation.

The highly-respected Institute for Fiscal Studies said that the gap between the main parties' plans for borrowing and cuts stretched into tens of billions of pounds. And there were apocalyptic warnings of the dangers of the result paving the way to Britain's departure from the European Union or splitting up the United Kingdom.

But there is scant sign that the electorate has responded to the arguments raging in the political world with anything approaching passion, and a hung Parliament with no obvious options for stable coalitions remains the most likely outcome.

Having started the election neck-and-neck in the polls, Labour and the Conservatives end it virtually level-pegging. The Press Association's poll of polls gave Tories a 0.2% lead as the campaign began - with less than 48 hours to go, the same poll of polls found exactly the same balance between the two biggest parties. Each has found itself with a six-point advantage in one poll, only for the apparent breakthrough to be exposed as a blip by subsequent surveys.

Only north of the border has there been drama in the figures, as Scottish National Party support surged higher and higher to the point where pollsters started predicting a clean sweep of all 59 seats - something leader Nicola Sturgeon has said she does not expect.

Only Ms Sturgeon has sparked evident enthusiasm from ordinary voters during the campaign, mobbed by cheering crowds after her much-admired appearances on the televised leaders' debates.

The other leaders - perhaps fearful of a repeat of Gordon Brown's "Gillian Duffy" moment, when the then Labour leader was harangued by an angry pensioner in 2010 - have largely been kept away from encounters with the people whose votes they are seeking.

By Tuesday evening, David Cameron had visited 68 constituencies, Ed Miliband 50 and Nick Clegg 35. But for the most part, the visits have involved speeches to small audiences of party activists and photo opportunities with cute animals or industrious workers in hi-vis jackets.

When they have taken questions from the public, it has generally been in workplaces, where employees have seemed more interested in getting mobile phone selfies with their famous visitor than in potentially annoying their bosses by heckling or putting their guest on the spot.

Occasionally, the real world has broken through - Mr Cameron was serenaded by a ukelele player telling him to "f*** off back to Eton" and an SNP fan told him the "Ajockalypse" was on its way.

But the overall safeness of the campaign was perhaps best symbolised by Mr Miliband's lectern, which he took with him wherever he went, once even using it to deliver comments in a field.

When their leader triggered some genuine excitement - posing for pictures with a screaming hen party, and when he became the surprise heartthrob of a group of teenage girls calling themselves the #milifandom - Labour's team seemed more bemused than anything.

Ukip's Nigel Farage adopted a more relaxed style, knocking on doors and chatting with drinkers in pubs. But his campaign was more subdued than many expected, possibly in part due to a flare-up of pain from back injuries sustained in an election-day plane crash in 2010, and also because he had to fight hard for the Thanet South seat where he is standing. He visited only 12 other seats during the campaign.

Even in their messaging, the leaders have largely played it safe. As expected, Tories majored on the economy and Labour on the NHS, while Lib Dems tried to position themselves as the perfect partner in any coalition.

After coming under fire for the negative tone of his attacks on Mr Miliband and the prospect of a Labour/SNP tie-up, Mr Cameron began throwing around expensive promises of free childcare, frozen train fares and a right to buy housing association homes. He countered accusations he lacked passion by declaring himself "pumped up" about helping small business. But by the end, his rhetoric was back in the familiar groove of "competence versus chaos".

Mr Miliband was boosted by outperforming low expectations in set-piece TV shows - which included only one debate involving the Prime Minister, after Mr Cameron refused to take part in a proposed three. The Labour leader attempted to present a face of stern fiscal rectitude, but refused to apologise to a Question Time audience member for his party's record on tax and spending power. Some questioned his judgment in meeting comedian Russell Brand and carving his pledges on an eight-foot tall slab of limestone.

Mr Clegg found himself unable to shake off continuous complaints about his university tuition fee U-turn, but kept smiling through the campaign - even presenting himself on Channel 4's The Last Leg to be the butt of its comedian hosts' humour and read out a dirty joke. As the campaign drew to an end, he allowed himself to be filmed reading out some of the rude tweets sent about him.

On Friday, they will find out whether it was all worth it, or whether the country has given a collective shrug and declined to give any of them a mandate, forcing them to go through the whole thing all over again before the end of the year.

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