So, who won?
I have mentioned before that Labour have become surprisingly poor at expectation management. Previously, however, this has been because they have failed to predict the full extent of the trouble that they were in, leading to people saying ‘oh, anything above x% would be a good result for us – we’ll only really be in trouble if we go below y%’ before the results come in showing them substantially below even the managed figure.
Last night, on the other hand, was the victim of expectation management of a rather different sort. Labour have gone all in on the notion that George Osborne is the weak link in the Tory party and therefore the one most worth attacking. Well, it’s a theory and poor George does rather have the air of a French aristocrat leaning out of a carriage window. It’s a strategy that carries with it certain risks though. Firstly, as Matt D’Ancona points out, it’s a pretty limp strategy to ignore the boss and target the number two. Are elections really decided on the character of the Chancellor? It seems unlikely. Was the 1983 campaign dominated by Geoffrey Howe? Was Oliver Letwin really shadow Chancellor in 2005?
The other risk is of overplaying your hand. Labour have invested a good deal of effort in pushing the image of Osborne as, in the words of their favourite imaginary focus groups, “shrill, immature and lightweight”. Strong stuff.
So, how did the Chancellors’ debate go? Predictably most pundits have handed the plaudits to Vince Cable. But then, he had by far the easiest gig. Positioned in the middle, he was able to snipe liberally at either side, make grandiose statements about his own infallibility and surf a tide of adulation for his own marvellousness. But the reason he was able to rise above the hurly-burly of the debate is because he and his party are an irrelevance. Neither Osborne nor Darling bothered to engage with Cable either on his projections for the future, nor his auto-hagiographic rendering of the past. Cable was a sideshow – albeit a sideshow with reasonably good comic timing.
Darling was, well, Darling. Not an electrifying speaker (barely even an oil-lamp lighting speaker), he stumbled over his words, was far wafflier and indirect than either of the other two, and flip-flopped agonisingly over the death-tax. But he still managed to radiate the sort of dull dependability that you would expect from a regional solicitor. Much of a Chancellor’s job falls into that large category labelled ‘boring but important’ that most of us cannot look at too closely without succumbing to narcolepsy – Darling is able to reassure us that he is boring enough not to be bored by this.
And Osborne? Well the thing is here that, after so much character assassination, all he really had to do was stand there for an hour without actively fanning himself with a cambric handkerchief or calling Alastair Darling ‘my good man’. He was solid, competent and sounded reasonable. I thought he was rather good myself, but I suspect I’m not the audience he had to win over.
This is why questions over ‘who won’ are so pointless. This was more like a round of golf than a game of tennis. Not only were each of the three competing against their own targets, but they were also playing to handicaps. If Osborne had been as tongue-tied as Darling, or as smug as Cable it would have been written up as a disaster for him. But he wasn’t – he did the job he had to do. Maybe no more, but certainly no less.