"I agree with Nick". That was the phrase used over and over again by David Cameron and Gordon Brown during last night's first ever general election leader debate on ITV1. In isolation the use of that phrase would have seemed consensual and reflected well on them but the fact that they said it so many times ended up making it clear that Clegg was actually setting the agenda. I expect Brown and Cameron didn't actually realise what they had done in this respect until afterwards.
Friday, 16 April 2010
According to most commentators and all the post-match polls I have seen, Clegg is perceived to have won the debate by a fair way (here's one polling example). I certainly thought that as I watched it and I did try to watch with one eye looking at it from a neutral perspective. Here are my brief thoughts on each leader:
Clegg: I thought he was clear in his points and very up on the detail of policies. Whenever he was challenged he was able to spell out how things would be paid for and show his working as it were. He also peppered his answers with personal anecdotes to underline his message. On the live chat I was running we all had some fun with this whenever one of the leaders did this shouting "ANECDOTE!" but the truth is that this sort of response is known to play very well with people. Any aspiring politician training course worth its salt will emphasise how important it is to bring in personal stories. He also, crucially in my view looked directly into the camera for all his answers making sure that he was connecting directly with the millions of people at home rather than the 200 people in the audience. His frequent references to "these two" and lumping Labour and Conservatives into the category of the old broken politics was very effective as well I thought. There were a couple of moments when he appeared to need a moment or two to gather his thoughts and as a result seems to slightly stumble over his words but on the biggest night of his political life this was only to be expected. Overall a great performance and he justifiably is perceived to have won the debate.
Cameron: I thought his opening and closing speeches were very solid (especially his closing one) and he was also very up on the detail of his policies. Like Clegg he made lots of use of personal anecdote too. However he also made some debating errors. For example at one point he gifted Clegg the opportunity to spell out how the £10K tax rate would be paid for by directly asking him. He must have known Clegg would know the details, they are in the manifesto! There was also an ill-chosen anecdote regarding immigration where he specifically pointed out that a "black man" had complained to his about immigration. That did not go down well on our live chat and I have seen numerous negative references to this by bloggers and commentators too. Cameron should excise that story from his list in future. He also seemed reluctant to go for Gordon Brown which frankly he really needed to. This was his opportunity to expose Brown and he really seemed to fluff it. He will need to raise his game in the remaining two debates.
Brown: He did better than I was expecting and actually came across as OK and vaguely human. Unsurprisingly he was up on the detail behind his policies too but as usual this tipped over into tractor statistics. He also has the insoluble "13 years" problem. Every time he says something that he intends to do to resolve a problem I just keep thinking "but you've had 13 years". He didn't make much use of personal anecdote which I think says much about his political style preferring to fire out statistics in the hope of blinding everyone with numbers. He is widely perceived to have done worst of the three leaders and for an incumbent Prime Minister looking for another five years last night will have done his re-election chances no good at all.
One other thing about Clegg. We now need to be careful with all the plaudits that he will be receiving over the next day or two that we don't end up in a position where the expectations for the second and third debate on him are so high that he can never meet them. Let's keep things in perspective. He did very well as those of us who have seen him many times knew that he was capable of but there is still a long way to go in this campaign. He needs to prepare for 2 and 3 as hard (if not harder) than he did for the first one. But if he keeps going the way that he has gone so far then I think Lib Dems have a lot to be positive about.
Finally, I would also like to just give some praise to David Cameron for having agreed to do these debates. He definitely had the most to lose of the three. I know he sort of painted himself into a corner by having strongly called for Brown to do them when Cameron himself was behind in the polls but even so he could have wriggled out using the time-honoured tradition of not agreeing on the rules for the debate and then blaming his opponents. He didn't and instead allowed an historic occasion to happen yesterday. I expect he has set a precedent for all future election campaigns and we should thank him for that.
Last night however belongs to Nick Clegg. It will be interesting to see if the Lib Dem polling numbers rise in the next few days on the back of this. They surely deserve to based on his performance.