That TV debate: Two play to their strengths, one doesn’t

TV debatesBy Brian Barder / @BrianLB

Instant reaction department:

This was a debate between three rival party leaders, not a triathlon. The media insistence that there has to be a “winner” is fundamentally fatuous. It’s not the Grand National nor even a general election. All three (Brown, Cameron, Clegg) performed better than some obervers expected, although as experienced politicians they damn well should have done. The media’s instant commentators were united this evening in awarding the palme d’or to Clegg, some even asserting that this Lib Dem triumph may have decisively changed the terms of the election campaign, although there seems to be no consensus as of tonight on which of the two serious parties will be the beneficiary, and no-one apart from Clegg (who insists on keeping an open mind on the question) is going so far as to predict that Clegg will be forming the next government.

The fact is that the debate did nothing to alter the relative strengths and weaknesses of the three contenders, nor the perception of them. Clegg’s obvious strength is that whatever happens, he’s not going to have to carry out his pledges and policies: he’s magnificently free to say what he likes in the certain knowledge that he’ll never be held to account, under the stresses of holding office in the real world, for the practicality of his prospectus. Given that glorious freedom, he was bound to shine. But there was what ought to have been a fatal flaw in his performance: he couldn’t resist the temptation to represent the other two parties as being essentially indistinguishable, which they are not. “A plague on both your houses” was a message that no doubt earned him easy approval, but in the end it’s a shallow and irresponsible stance for a serious politician to adopt. Do the Lib Dems share more of Labour’s values and core principles than they do the Conservatives’? Clegg declines to answer this basic question. It’s a populist cop-out. But it did the trick, anyway with the commentariat, and probably with many of those viewers who stuck it out for the full 90 minutes of the debate. It has probably earned Lib Dem candidates some new votes, perhaps even a few more seats: but that’s important only in terms of its impact on the fortunes of Labour and the Tories, and that’s extremely hard to assess. Moreover, there are two more 90-minute debates still to come before polling day, and by the end of the series the glamour of the “plague on both their houses” trope may have begun to wear a little thin.

No more needs to be said about Mr Clegg.

Gordon Brown’s strength, which he exploited skilfully in the debate, was his obvious command of the issues and the fact that he alone of the contestants actually grapples with them every day as the man with the power and responsibility for taking action on them, not just talking about them. This gives him a gravitas and authority that were painfully lacking in the other two debaters. Brown’s countervailing weaknesses are equally obvious. He has been a senior member of a government that has been in power for 13 years, so on every policy initiative he is vulnerable to the question why he hadn’t done it before. As the incumbent, he is automatically held to be responsible for the present state of the nation, which – in fact through no fault of his own – is in the depths of the worst recession for generations. He lacks charisma and is plausibly believed to be a bad-tempered bully who terrorises his staff. He’s seen as indecisive. He’s a formidable intellectual who resorts to statistics and economic analyses that don’t fit easily into the sound-bite culture favoured by a debate in which each intervention is limited to just a few seconds. He has, though, a certain granite-like quality and a depth of knowledge which some of us find impressive. Others find it boring, which as we know is the ultimate PR sin.

Cameron’s strengths are equally obvious: he’s fluent, he can’t be held responsible for the current problems of the nation and the world, he’s quick and agile, he’s young and I’m told that some regard him as good looking. In my view he’s shallow, easily blown off course by conflicting pressures and the desire to be everything to all men (and women), easily yielding to the temptation to use slick populist slogans that win the Daily Mail’s and The Sun’s knee-jerk approval: putting increasingly ludicrous figures on the amounts of government ‘waste’ that he’s going to eradicate within weeks, pretending that eradicating waste is different in its effects from drastic cuts in government expenditure, adopting fake macho attitudes to crime and prisons, pretending that he’ll pay down the national debt while simultaneously reducing taxes on the mega-rich. His debating style is to me, anyway, unpleasantly reminiscent of the Oxford Union or even the fourth form debating society in a mediocre school. He has a habit of pursing his lips in prim disapproval that often reminds me of Hugh Gaitskell, whom I think Cameron resembles far more closely than he resembles the younger Tony Blair, with whom he is often compared. I thought all these weaknesses came out strongly in the course of the debate. He seemed to me no match for Brown’s authority or for Clegg’s freedom of manoeuvre. He failed, above all, to sound or even look like a prime minister-designate.

Obviously these verdicts are very personal: I freely acknowledge that they reflect my opinions of the three musketeers as I held them before a word of tonight’s debate had been uttered. But then I think that this will be true of very many of the personal verdicts which will be confidently pronounced over the next few days. The three debaters were not transformed by the television cameras and microphones into different people with hitherto unsuspected strengths or weaknesses. By the same token, I suspect that few will change their voting intentions as a result of watching the programme, although rather more may be disproportionately influenced by the television, radio and newspaper coverage of the debate this evening and tomorrow, coverage that will in turn reflect the political predilections of the media organs that deliver their varying verdicts. Those whose votes in the polls put Brown in third and last place probably disliked and scorned Brown beforehand, and were comfortably confirmed in their dislike and scorn by what they heard and saw. The same was probably true of pre-existing opinions of Cameron. Clegg will have surprised many by having shown himself the equal in competence of the other two, and even their superior in style and charisma: others won’t even have known who he was until well into the debate. But he still won’t be forming a government on May 7th.

We can however afford to be generous on at least one point. All did well, and all shall have prizes. The key to Number 10 Downing Street will however be awarded to only one of them. Unless there’s a political earthquake of heroic dimensions between now and May 6th, and regardless of how he performs in the remaining two debates, and notwithstanding the fatuities in his party’s election manifesto, and unless Labour can find a way of expressing complex and often counter-intuitive Keynesian truths in easily intelligible sound-bites which will be proof against malignant misrepresentation by the Daily Mail and the Murdoch media, it’s going to be this evening’s bronze medallist: David Cameron. We had better get used to it.

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