Gaffes, guff and Gary Barlow

In an email to supporters, Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, wrote: "This is the last election the British National Party fights as a large small party - we are now a small large party." Griffin, yet again, showed his powers of coherent thought and devastating eloquence (and misrepresentation of reality: the BNP performed badly all over the country and lost 12 council seats in Barking, where he stood unsuccessfully for election).

But Griffin wasn't the only one to grandstand nonsensically. For the past five weeks, the British public has endured a catalogue of vacuity and contradiction, all delivered with "statesmanlike" aplomb. (Isn't "statesmanlike" an odd compliment? Flunkies routinely bless their leaders with it, but sounding like a statesman is surely the least they should expect from a candidate for prime minister. If he routinely sounded "childlike", you'd have to wonder how suited he was to the job.) As David Cameron veered between the "big society" and the "broken society", as Gordon Brown stated that his entire manifesto was written in the "future tense" and Nick Clegg simpered about "change" and "real change", our collective hearing slowly shut down.

Too much information

We eventually became so inured to the empty language of politicians that, as the campaign went on, we let it wash. By the third television debate, once Clegg had said "This is your election" for the 85th time, the three men could have been spouting nursery rhymes in iambic pentameter, for how much their words lodged in the public consciousness. They blamed the media for neglecting policy and obsessing about behind-the-scenes machinations. But then Clegg, swollen with the possibility of power, spent the last week of the campaign doing exactly that. He was like a doe-eyed damsel, fluttering his lashes at each party from behind his yellow fan, giving tantalising nods in all directions and flashing the odd bit of knee.

Yet perhaps the windbaggery was the fault of the wider political industry. The media, the polls, the BBC's worm, the blogs, the pundits. This was the election of too much information. And of a right-wing press that, instead of exposing the guff, fuelled it in desperation to get its man into No 10 - the apex of this experiment surely being the Sun's headline "In Cameron we trust", in which the MP for Witney was conflated with God.

It was also a celebrity-dappled election: Clegg having a coffee with Colin Firth; Brown eating chips with Duncan Bannatyne (A seaside tsar, Gordon? And you say we should have chosen you on substance over the PR-honed personas of your rivals?); Cameron on a school stage next to Gary Barlow, announcing, with a gravitas appropriate for a new war, a national music competition for children. It was hard to look during these moments, as the politicians' hungry eyes implored the electorate: "Look, this famous person likes me!" The wives also became stars - and were clearly sharing a guidebook on how to behave appropriately in an election campaign (Rule one: Sit opposite your husband on a train, hold his hands across the table and smile with a quiet intelligence that bespeaks your inner strength).

Amid all this, there were some moments of blissful relief, when reality skewered artifice and the ragged edges of humanity rubbed up against the exfoliated sheen of the controlled party performance. One was the central spectacle, the girl bursting out of the cake, the 100-metre sprint, that will for ever be known as The Ultimate Gaffe - good old Gillian Duffy. Not because she revealed Brown's dark inner thoughts, or decisively toppled him, but because she provoked him into giving us one of the few unguarded moments of the campaign. At last, the truth. Brown could have muttered murderous intent towards the entire population of Britain and I'd have forgiven him, so grateful was I for his honesty.

Fishy business

But before we'd even had a chance to enjoy it, there were the media, goggling like loons at Duffy's closed front door, offering observational gems such as "The door is still closed!" (in the immortal words of an Armando Iannucci tweet: "Never has so much shit hit so little a fan") until Brown came out and smirked his way through a creeping apology. Soon, he was back to his usual form, striding around factories saying things like, "Hello. You're a man. That's excellent. I like football. Vote for me."

The Duffy episode wasn't a patch, though, on the one involving the child at the Sir John Sherbrooke Junior School in Nottingham­shire, visited by Cameron after a stopover at Grimsby fish market during his all-night marathon attempt to convince the public that he was in fact a superhero, albeit with a mediocre costume. As he left class J2, having fielded the pupils' questions, a boy piped up. "You all smell of fish," he said.

What a kid. Telling it like it is. Undeferential, unfazed. It should be the lesson of the election: don't skimp, don't pussyfoot, don't airbrush, don't posture. If a man stinks of fish, tell him. That, my friends, is what I'm holding aloft from the swamp of the election's aftermath.

Sophie Elmhirst is assistant editor of the NS.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 17 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, On a tightrope