Inside the spin room: behind the scenes at the final leaders' debate

The main political parties last night unleashed their heavyweight operators to brief journalists before, during and after the all-important final TV debate.

Shaping the debate: the spin room
Shaping the debate: the spin room

PRWeek had a ringside seat in the ‘spin room' - located this time at an exam hall at the University of Birmingham, where political journalists watched the debate and party operatives worked the room to declare their man the winner.
 
One of the first senior party figures to brave the spin room ahead of the debate was Conservative Party comms director Andy Coulson. But the publicity-shy former tabloid editor was quick to disappear once the TV cameras began prowling the premises.
 
The No 10 team were the last to enter the spin room ahead of the 8.30pm kick off. Apart from Gordon Brown's former press secretary Charlie Whelan - ‘always the first to appear', according to one hack - none of the Downing Street team had shown up with less than an hour until kick-off.
 
During the pre-match period journalists and selected party heavyweights mixed freely - but the real spinning was yet to get under way. ‘A little bit of gentle spin being applied but only 35 degrees not 60,' noted The Guardian political correspondent Allegra Stratton.
 
As the debate started, most party operatives were in the green room to watch the drama unfold. First back out of the traps to brief journalists on the debate was Tory frontbencher Michael Gove, entering the spin room with 22 minutes still to go.
 
Accompanied by an aide, the shadow education secretary made a beeline for Laura Kuenssberg, chief political correspondent for the BBC News Channel.

Gove then proceeded to target individual journalists - but his strategy of interrupting hacks in the middle of the debate did not always pay off. At least one senior journalist indicated he would prefer to watch the final few minutes of the debate than deal with the shadow education secretary.

Lord Mandelson used a different approach as he took charge of the early spinning for Labour, gliding into the spin room a few minutes after Gove.
 
With the debate still in full swing, the Business Secretary situated himself at the back of the room and let a vast media scrum to gather around him. For some minutes, in the glare of the cameras, Mandelson stood silent and motionless.

Eventually, the peer spoke to the dozens of journalists crowded around him. ‘It was a very strong performance from the Prime Minister,' he declared. ‘He got back on his horse after what happened yesterday and galloped through the debate.... He had strength, conviction and detail. This was an extraordinary, barnstorming performance by Gordon Brown. Considering the circumstances.'
 
As the hacks lapped it up, Gove was relegated to second fiddle in the spin stakes. He shook his head, muttered to an aide and looked on in despondent bewilderment.
 
Once the debate finished, the floodgates opened. A host of party operatives turned up in the spin room, intent on telling anyone who would listen why their man was the clear winner.

For the Liberal Democrats, former party leader Lord Ashdown was in bullish mood. ‘It was interesting that Brown attacked Cameron, but Cameron attacked Nick Clegg,' he said. Senior Lib Dem MPs David Laws and Danny Alexander were also batting for the Clegg in the spin room.

But then the polls came in and the Tories were suddenly out in force. ‘We've won all three,' said a Cameron aide. A similar sentiment was expressed to the assorted TV cameras and various members of the press by senior Tory MPs William Hague, Jeremy Hunt, Liam Fox, Phillip Hammond and - later on - George Osborne.

For Labour, general election co-ordinator Douglas Alexander was a regular presence in the spin room, often working alongside Mandelson. Former Downing Street comms director Alastair Campbell also sought to limit the damage with a post-debate stint in the spin room.

But as Campbell disregarded polls putting his man in third, the extent of the Labour spinners' challenge was made clear by one senior journalist talking to Charlie Whelan on the other side of the room.

‘That was a win for Cameron,' said the hack. ‘Blimey,' responded a crestfallen Whelan. ‘Even you don't believe that.'

And then the Labour spinner was off to tell another hack about ‘the same old Tories'.

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