So, enough time has passed for a slightly more reflective take on last night’s debate. Unusually, I agree with the general perception that Nick Clegg ‘won’ the debate. He was reasonable-sounding, he looked at the camera, he looked new and young and so forth. He was also rather gifted the debate by the format of the evening – and the strategy adopted by Gordon Brown in particular.
The two over-riding themes of the evening were Gordon Brown saying “I agree with Nick”, and Nick Clegg jabbing a finger and saying “those other two”. For Cameron, this was something of a nightmare. With Brown glutinously sticking close to Clegg, and Clegg performing his Mercutio routine, Cameron didn’t know whether to stick or twist – whether he should confront Brown and take him on directly on his misrepresentations of Tory policy, or ignore Brown altogether and try and frame the debate himself. The first approach lent a lot of credence to Clegg’s holier-than-thou exasperation, the second made it look as though he was avoiding the questions. He ended up veering between the two positions, which managed to incorporate the downsides to each position.
Not a great night for Cameron then, although my impression of his performance at the time was that he did almost exactly as well as I’d expected him to. He was polished, after a nervous start, he got his policies across clearly, and he looked poised, confident and Prime Ministerial. Whatever, and in this I disagree with Alex Massie, I thought he was significantly better than Gordon Brown – especially presentationally, but also in how he got his arguments across, and in the substance of those arguments.
We were told before the debates that all three leaders were frantically outsourcing their witty asides to teams of high-profile jokesters. Well if that was the case, the Clegg and Cameron seem very sensibly to have left them on the cutting-room floor. Brown on the other hand had been prepped with a couple of corkers, and was going to squeeze them in whatever it took. There was the one about how Lord Ashcroft had done him a favour, because he was smiling on the posters, and there was one about airbrushing posters but not policies. All good knockabout stuff, and to a backdrop of rustling order papers and ‘year-year-years’ from his backbenchers they might have worked. To the background of deathly silence that has been required for these debates they sounded…just awful.
I suspect that a three-way debate involving a ‘third party’ is always going to benefit that third party. Not only are they not saddled by a government record to defend, they don’t even have to put up with the same degree of scrutiny afforded to the main opposition. They are free to snipe from the sidelines, and to damn all present with impunity. Add to that the mere fact of the presence – which imbues them with equal standing in the eyes of the viewer, and you have a very strong position to be in. It’s why Vince Cable ‘won’ the Chancellors’ debate, and it’s why Nick Clegg ‘won’ last night.
Can either Cameron or Brown pull it back next week? Well, next week is foreign policy, and it’s here that the Liberal Democrats are a little bit vulnerable. They are easily the most Europhile party in British politics: they have traditionally campaigned for Euro membership, and they reneged on their manifesto pledge regarding a referendum on Lisbon. They also sound quite unilateralist on their policy not to renew Trident – their manifesto policy is a little more nuanced, but Clegg was pretty unambiguous about it last night. Pro-Europe and unilateralist – these are not easy policies to defend in the context of a debate.
Can Brown capitalise? Does he even want to? He may well decide that the best thing to do is to remain sticking close to Cleggy and trying to use points of agreement to score of Cameron. He is, in any event, pretty vulnerable here too. Expect helicopters, body armour and the whole toxic issue of Iraq to get plenty of airtime. Can Cameron profit on this one? Well he ought to. But to do so he’ll have to demonstrate far better mastery of the format than he showed last night.
I was watching the show with my wife last night – who’s not quite such a politics geek as I am, but is still pretty well informed and engaged on these things. She was really quite impressed with Clegg, and thought he was much the best early on (she loathes Brown anyway…). Just towards the end, however, she started to get pretty ticked off with his continued ‘those two’ lines. It worked well at the start, but it got pretty grating by the end. Is this a strategy with a sell-by date? Ah, anecdata, there’s nothing quite like it.