The incident was typical of an election campaign in which voters and the media have been kept at a chilly distance — and political editors are getting angry.
The Times has complained of a lack of interaction with reporters in the Cameron campaign and scant contact with ordinary people over the age of four.
The conservative paper was no kinder to Cameron’s main opponent, the leader of the Labour party, writing: “Defensive choreography sucks the life out of every campaign appearance by Ed Miliband.”
Marina Hyde, columnist for the centre-left Guardian newspaper, was equally scathing.
“Of all the unedifying sights I’ve seen so far this campaign, the sorriest has to be Cameron’s entourage forming a protective huddle round him on a busy platform at Bedford station,” she wrote.
“Cameron has toured so many empty business parks and factories now that he must be totally dislocated.”
Both leaders are wary of repeating the 2010 experience of Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who was ambushed by questions about immigration from pensioner Gillian Duffy.
After saying farewell to the woman and returning to his car, Brown forgot his microphone was still on and called the voter a “bigoted woman” — a gaffe credited with helping torpedo his election campaign.
“There is probably a fear of people making mistakes, committing gaffes when exposed to the public in those kind of unmediated ways,” said Matthew Francis, a political historian at the University of Birmingham.
Peter Kellner, head of pollster YouGov, was quoted by British media as saying that the 24-hour news environment conspires for politicians to be cautious.
“It’s very much the continuation of a trend we’ve seen in recent years where politicians try to avoid the unexpected,” Kellner said.
‘Dreadful and boring’
The fact that Labour and Cameron’s Conservative party are neck-and-neck in the polls seems to have encouraged caution rather than any side going on the offensive.
But the strategy has its drawbacks.
Tim Bell, who was once media advisor to former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, described the campaign as dreadful, risk averse and boring.
Media outlets, which pay thousands of pounds for a place on the campaign buses following Cameron and Miliband and only discover their schedules at the last minute, have begun to complain.
“This is not Russia. In a real democracy voters have a right to know where their candidates are campaigning and ask them tough questions, and the media has a right to know and ask on their behalf,” a Times editorial said yesterday.
The lack of contact with voters could exacerbate Britain’s already relatively low turnout, which was 65.1 per cent at the last election in 2010, according to the political historian Francis.
“It encourages the image that they are out of touch.”
One voter in Manchester expressed irritation that she had not seen the MP for her constituency out in the community — a frequently heard complaint.
“I think the politicians need to come to communities rather than speaking on TV,” Nadira Mahamoud, 21, said.
University of Glasgow politics lecturer Philip Habel said some of the difference could be down to campaign budgets that are far smaller than in the United States, for example.
“The budgets are far more limited,” Habel said, driving the campaign online.
“We’ve seen an explosion of the use of social media both by citizens and the campaigners themselves.”
Not everyone sticks to the script, however.
The Scottish National Party has bucked the trend by galvanising large crowds and scoring well in the polls with a far more old-fashioned style of campaigning. — AFP