Small parties live and die by the amount of attention they receive during an election campaign. Though Ofcom’s broadcasting guidelines do give them a leg-up and guarantee them television coverage that they might be denied in peacetime, that itself is no guarantee that their messages will reach the public.
The Liberal Democrats have learnt that lesson this week. In another universe, the past two days might have seen Jo Swinson emerge as the clear winner of a three-way debate with Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson, and her manifesto – released today – capture the public imagination.
In the event, however, neither happened – as gloomy campaign sources and candidates privately admit. A legal challenge to the terms of ITV’s debate failed at the eleventh hour, while the Prince Andrew saga – which one Lib Dem official describes as “the biggest story of the campaign” – has blown today’s manifesto launch down the news agenda, if not out of the water completely. One candidate in a top target seat jokes that the Duke of York is a Brexiteer.
Swinson is also finding that quality is as much a problem as quantity when it comes to media coverage. As my colleague Stephen Bush notes in his column for this week’s magazine, most of the party’s appearances on broadcast media are dominated by the question of whether they would put Labour or the Tories in government come a hung parliament – to which there is no easy answer.
A large part of why the Liberal Democrats enjoyed such a successful European campaign was that they monopolised the Remain side of the debate with an unambiguous policy pitch provocatively expressed: “Bollocks to Brexit.” They are finding the step up to rather more difficult.