Sketch: Three men in a boat

David Cameron called them “three men in a boat”. But it wasn’t clear whether the prime minister, chancellor and first secretary of state were managing to stay afloat.

By Alex Stevenson

This was a momentous occasion: Labour’s opening press conference of the 2010 campaign, held somewhere in the party’s headquarters in central London. Victoria Street is about as landlocked as you can get, but that didn’t stop Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and Peter Mandelson lurching to and fro in stormy national insurance weather.

The good ship Fourth Term was tacking into a heavy wind this morning. “They have zigzagged again,” a Tory observer from the shore might have observed as they struggled back and forth. In fact this was Mandelson’s observation about the Conservatives’ efficiency savings proposals, but that didn’t matter. There were the Tories, snugly sheltered in the City’s harbour. Labour, by contrast, was out in the open, being lashed by the squall of business leaders’ signatures. The waves were getting bigger and bigger. Not unlike the opposition’s lead in the polls.

Cap’n Brown, the man responsible for charting a course out of the Sea of Recession, was contemptuous of Cameron’s “flimsy four-page press release”. In the 2005 election the Tories provided 173 pages of numbers which Brown fondly remembered tearing into. This time round, those “slim four pages” were given a hard time. “Get the decisions wrong now and we will be paying the price for years to come,” he warned.

Darling, whose eyebrows were presumably blackened by the soot from the engine room, emerged blinking to deliver his own prophecies of doom. “They cannae do it, captain,” he might have said, were this analogy more interstellar. “To add £12 billion [of cuts] on top in nine months simply beggars belief.” At least he was philosophical about the ever-shifting light airs coming from the financial quarter. “There will be occasions when they’re with you, they’ll be occasions when they’re against you,” he quavered. The same goes for the electorate, we all added silently.

The ageing vessel, now 13 years old and with the barnacles beginning to show, creaked on. The skipper looked especially jaded, muttering repeatedly to himself about the need to secure the loose ropes, flapping sails and recovery. And the women and children, of course. “She’s the love of my life,” Brown declared at one stage, (almost) apropos of nothing. “Isn’t that nice,” Mandelson simpered. As he remarked earlier: “We’re perfectly relaxed about marriage in this party.”

Indeed it was First Mate Mandelson who was really in charge, smoothly picking his way through the perilous television channels to reach the haven of the nationals. He was the star of the show, attracting huge laughs when he said he was “absolutely thrilled” by Charlie Whelan getting a parliamentary pass and wry smiles from his barely concealed glee as he called Tory plans “a disaster for manufacturing in this country”.

If New Labour is a sinking ship it’s clear who’ll be controlling access to the lifeboats. After 13 years of leaks, that seems distinctly possible.