Fifty years after the US began Presidential TV debates, the British viewing public were treated to the experience of a debate amongst the three front runners in the British general election – Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg. In an otherwise average piece of television, Nick Clegg came out of the debate ahead of his rivals. Gordon Brown disappointed even his own champions. Cameron was acceptable.
There were no knock-out blows or disastrous gaffes, no jokes that were memorable and no new policies. This did not prevent fierce clashes over issues such as economy, MPs’ expenses and immigration, over which the parties disagree. On the economy, Brown wants more investment from government and Cameron austerity. On the MP’s expenses no one can agree what needs to be done now. On immigration, the parties take a different stance on the link between jobs and immigration – Cameron wanting to ensure that more jobs go to British born workers and Brown and Clegg preferring to remain vague. All three agree that immigration is too high and needs to be curtailed.
Clegg was polished, assured and articulate. He positioned his liberal party as a rational, mature alternative to the bickering of the traditional two parties of power. He outlined ideas and policies which, on the surface, sound rational and he won the popularity poll hands down. In snap surveys taken immediately after the debate, he secured between 43 and 51% of the poll, depending on which pollster you want to listen to. There are two more debates before election day on May 6th – the next one on foreign affairs and the final one on the economy. All three leaders will be working to improve their performance.
The themes of the election came out clearly. Cameron reiterated, every time Brown appeared to have a new idea, that the Government had been in power for thirteen years and is now seeking another five to do what they should have done all along. Brown speaks of his experience and being a steady hand on the tiller of the ship, which many see to be sinking. Clegg suggests that the more the Labour and Conservative parties argue the more they sound the same – it’s time for a change.
Close to ten million voters (9.9 million in fact) were watching peak time politics – a kind of job interview in front of a nation. This means that some twenty five to thirty million will be talking about this over a coffee or beer and a cigarette for the next few days. A novelty in itself. But they did not watch a great game changer or are unlikely to now see the parties in a different way and may well return to East Enders or Coronation Street rather than watch the next two debates. Though history was made by the fact of the debates themselves, what was said was not new.
Clegg will try and use the momentum from the debate to argue that this will be the breakthrough election for the Liberals. He will suggest that he has the momentum to form a Government. The Liberals have suggested this in every election since the second world war and have never come even close. This time, however, it will cement his position as the potential king maker if there is a hung parliament. Clegg did himself no harm. His challenge is to repeat this performance on two more occasions – all eyes will now be on him.
Brown is not good at television. His basic grumpy intellectual side seems to shine through the camera like a laser, even when he is trying to be funny. His humour is also, well, not funny. His big joke, wait for it, was to thank David Cameron for showing him as a smiling man in the posters which adorn the billboards across Britain. See what I mean. Cameron is a polished performer and that is his problem. He comes across as what the Brits call “smarmy” – a kind of performing spin doctor whose words sound good until you read them in the cold light of day. He is Blair again. This was very obvious in last nights debate. Clegg won because he seemed the only one who was both comfortable and genuine, but then he can afford to be – he has no real chance of winning.
The polls published today show the Conservatives with a seven point lead over Labour who, in turn, have a ten point lead over the Liberals. The election is still too close to call, though the Conservatives appear to have some momentum. It will be a few days before we can see what impact, if any, the TV debate had on core voter opinion. The race will begin to settle only in the final week of the race – the first week of May.