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

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 LibDem 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 LibDems 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 LibDem 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 7 May.

We can however afford to be generous on at least one point.  All did well, and all shall have prizes.  The key to No. 10 Downing Street will however be awarded to only one of them.   Unless there’s a political earthquake of heroic dimensions between now and 6 May, 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.


11 Responses

  1. Oliver Miles says:

    Instant impressions:
    First, three is too many for a duel. As a spectacle it was a flop.
    Second, watching American electoral confrontations I have usually thanked God I do not have to vote for either (last time was an exception). With these three I felt quite positive. In the last resort I could vote for any of them I suppose.
    Third, what a pity none of them said “While I welcome this debate between party leaders, I would like to remind those watching that we do not have a presidential system in this country. I am here as leader of a team, and it is a team you will be voting for.”

    Brian writes: Thank you for these persuasive points. I agree that it was not much of a spectacle, but ‘flop’ might be a little strong: it held the attention (mine, anyway) more than I had expected it to do. Personally, I can’t imagine any circumstances in which I could vote for Cameron, either on last night’s showing or on any other grounds, unless perhaps his only opponent was Pol Pot or George W. Bush. But I recognise that millions of others are going to feel otherwise, and will act accordingly on 6 May.

    Your third point is self-evidently valid and it’s a little surprising, as well as regrettable, that none of the three made it.

  2. Hooky Walker says:

    I watched the whole thing. I tried to exclude from my mind what I already knew or believed about the candidates. On that basis I scored Clegg one, Brown two and Cameron three (despite the fact that I am a paid-up member of the Conservative Party). Cameron was unable to answer the questions in the same amount of detail as his rivals.
    I dare to depart from the thrust of your second para by suggesting that Clegg may well have picked up votes on the strength of yesterday evening’s performance.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Hooky. I’m very interested by your ranking of the candidates’ performances in the debate. Despite the polls taken immediately after the debate, some of which put Cameron in first or second place, I think most more considered assessments in the media and the blogosphere have been agreeing with yours in putting Cameron in third and bottom place. A panel of assessors on Channel 4 last night awarded marks for confidence, leadership and some other quality, and wound up by giving Brown five points, Clegg three and Cameron zero. It looks as if Clegg stole Cameron’s assets (boyish freshness, lack of baggage, charm and fluency), as well as exploiting his asset of novelty, leaving Cameron with precious little advantage over Brown.

    I don’t think, incidentally, that there’s any contradiction between my second paragraph and your speculation that the LibDems might have picked up votes on the strength of Mr Clegg’s performance in the debate. I make exactly the same suggestion in my post, adding that the LibDems might even win extra seats as well as additional votes as a result of the debate. You will now have seen reports of a new poll which puts the LibDems in second place, behind the Tories and ahead of Labour. But if this were (most improbably) to persist until 6 May, and in the equally improbable event that it was reflected in a series of uniform swings throughout the UK, Labour would emerge as the biggest single party in the house of commons with the right to try to form a minority government, since the bulk of the LibDem surge seems likely to be at the expense of the Tories — who need to win seats from the LibDems, as well as from Labour, if they are to have any chance of forming a majority government, or indeed any government at all. (But a lot can and unquestionably will change between now and 6 May, obviously.)

  3. Recursived says:

    Not sure about this: “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.”
    At the moment I’d say there’s a very good chance that the Lib Dems will end up as kingmakers and will be able to get some of their policies adopted as part of the bargain. Clegg and/or Cable may indeed get positions in the cabinet, albeit as junior partners.

    Brian writes: I’d be very surprised if the LibDems agreed to join a Tory minority government as junior members of a formal coalition with a couple of Cabinet seats reserved for them, although of course it would be a possibility. I don’t think the LibDem rank and file would tolerate such a cosying-up to the Tories at the national level; I can’t see Vince Cable serving in a Tory Cabinet (although Clegg might); and I doubt if the Tories would be willing to share the spoils of victory with a party that struggles to win one vote out of five (although the new Clegg factor may possibly change that), still less agree to make significant policy concessions to it. The SNP model in Scotland seems far likelier: Cameron would form a minority government that would act as if it had an overall Commons majority, and dare the LibDems and other smaller parties to combine with Labour to defeat him on a vote of confidence. Both Labour and the LibDems would be most reluctant to bring down a Cameron minority government, anyway in its first 18 or 24 months, for fear that if they did, the Queen would accede to a Cameron request for a dissolution and fresh elections when these would be extremely likely to return the Tories to power, this time with an overall majority. IOW, the LibDem kingmaker would almost certainly prove to be a paper tiger — or a wasp which could use its sting only once, because it would die from using it. In the current cant phrase, the LibDems should be careful about what they wish for.

  4. John Miles says:

    My wife is much less of a political animal than I am, but blessed with far more common sense.
    Today – Sunday – she saw Brown, Osbourne and Cable on the box and commented that the latter was the only one who seemed capable of listening to his interlocutor or conducting a reasonably sensible conversation.
    The other two’s answer to everything was to reel off  lists of boring, largely uncheckable statistics.
    Maybe they should stick to lies and damned lies.
    The Lib Dems’  best hope is that the other two parties’ supporters will underestimate them, and keep on sneering.
    I look forward to hearing them discuss Afghanistan, and of course Trident.

  5. ObiterJ says:

    “Britain’s Got Politics” seems to sum up this.  TV is all about “personality” and little about the real substantial issues.  Also, many serious issues (e.g. Defence, Afghanistan) have been pushed out of the election campaign.

  6. John Miles says:

    Further thought:
    The main reason people are reluctamt to vote Lib Dem is probably their enthusiasm for Europe.
    It’ll be interesting to see how the other two deal with this one.

    Brian writes: Thanks. I agree. The danger is that in their enthusiasm for trying to discredit the LibDems, the Tories will be driven further and further into an even more right-wing, Europhobic position than they are in already.

  7. John Miles says:

    One more thought.
    In today’s argy-bargy between our would-be chancellors Mr Darling awarded a bag of nuts to Mr Brown because, he said,  probably quite correctly,  under his chancellorship our economy hsd enjoyed its longest ever period of economic growth.
    I seem to remember you yourself making the same point in one of your sales pitches for Mr Brown. 

    Here are three more or less indisputable facts:
    Mr Brown was recently chancellor for ten years or so.
    During his chancellorship our economy enjoyed more or less continuous growth.
    And during his chancellorship the world economy also enjoyed more or less continuous growth.

    And here are some propositions a jumper-to-conclusions might be tempted to infer:
    Mr Brown’s chancellorship caused our economic growth.
    Mr Brown’s chancellorship caused the world’s economic growth.
    Our economic growth caused the world’s economy to grow’
    The world’s economic growth caused our economy to grow.

    Which of these conclusions is logically valid?
    None of them.
    Which of them is actually true.
    Probably only the last.

    Brian writes: I doubt if it makes much sense to try to set up such over-simplified cause-and-effect relationships in situations where developments are affected to widely varying degrees by a whole host of factors, not just by any one of them. You may be sure that if Gordon Brown’s management of the UK economy during his decade as Chancellor of the Exchequer had been marked (as it was under the Tories) by constant upturns and downturns, by sudden bursts of high inflation and high unemployment, with interest rates going up and down like yo-yos, Brown would have been held responsible for that failure. The fact that under his Chancellorship the UK experienced uninterrupted growth, low unemployment, low inflation, and high (long overdue) investment in restoring basic public services from the preceding years of neglect, must be hugely to Brown’s credit, even if we also benefited from other benign external circumstances for some of the time. Moreover Brown can hardly be blamed for the damage visited on the economy by the banking crisis and the failure of the manipulation by crooked and avaricious American bankers of American sub-prime mortgages: Brown on his own couldn’t have done anything to prevent the collapse, which was a global, not primarily a British, phenomenon. Pretending that the current crisis somehow discredits Brown’s record in the preceding decade is a sad example of perverse hindsight and faulty rationalisation.

  8. John Miles says:

    You are  right to say that economic happenings don’t normally have one single cause.
    “Mutifactorial” is one of the the buzz-words.
    But this doesn’t mean you can arbitrarily rubbish factors you happen to find unpalatable.
    Do you really think our economy would have grown during Mr Brown’s chancellorship if the world’s economy had been contracting then?

    By the same token, there are those who would argue that it’s too simplistic to blame our economic problems solely on the Americans, and the collapse of the global economy.
    They would say that the deregulation of our financial institutions under the auspices of Mr Brown, together with the reckless lending he encouraged the bankers to indulge in, had something to do with it.

    There are quite a few questions about Mr Brown”s chancellorship I’ve never seen satisfactorily answered.
    Here’s one:
    What was the thinking behind his “raid” 0n the pension funds in the late nineties?
    As it happens I’ve personally profited from this, but many people lost out, and I don’t think they’ll ever forgive him.
    Can you explain?

    And many people think Mr Brown’s been culpably negligent in doing nothing about the “pensions time-bomb” due to go off in the not-too-distant future.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. Just a few quick responses: (1) Deregulation of the financial institutions began under the Tories (remember the Big Bang?) who not only ardently supported its continuation under Gordon Brown’s Chancellorship, but vociferously complained that it didn’t go far enough. Deregulation was the almost undisputed watchword of all major western countries for decades until the collapse in 2008, and any single finance minister who had tried to swim against that tide would have been driven from office with incredulous ridicule. The UK could not have reimposed strict regulation on its own even if its government had wanted to: London would simply have ceased to be the world’s main financial centre and a huge amount of tax revenue would have dried up. (2) I don’t think you can infer anything useful from the answer to your question “what if the world economy had been contracting instead of growing during the period of Gordon Brown’s Chancellorship?”: that can only be a matter of speculation. We can however be pretty sure that if Brown had adopted different policies as regards borrowing only for investment and balancing the budget over the period of each economic cycle, we might well have experienced the same violent fluctuations in levels of unemployment, interest rates and inflation as we did under Brown’s Tory predecessors, whatever was happening in the world economy. (3) Brown didn’t ‘encourage reckless lending’ by the banks: he tried unsuccessfully to negotiate an international consensus around international action to moderate what was always an international, not a national, problem. (4) I don’t know enough about the so-called Brown raid on pensions to comment with confidence, but my understanding, probably mistaken, is that what he did was to remove certain tax exemptions from pension contributions which constituted the removal of an unwarranted privilege, not the imposition of a new and unjust tax. But in any case this has nothing to do with the question whether for a decade Gordon Brown was a successful manager of the UK economy. On the evidence I think it’s clear that he was, and if he was lucky in some of the external factors that helped him to succeed, that doesn’t detract from his achievement.

  9. John Miles says:

    Your explanation of Mr Brown’s raid on the pension funds seems woefully out of touch with reality.
    Fact One: prudent, praiseworthy citizens who were only following government advice to make arrangements for their old age were thumped good and hard, while
    Fact Two: sinful, black-hearted stock market speculators – like me, for instance – now get their dividends for practical purposes tax-free.
    Don’t expect me to whinge too much, but what kind of sense does it make?

    You say nothing about the pensions time-bomb.
    Is there any evidence that Mr Brown is even aware of this?
    Yet I’m inclined to think it’ll be just as big a problem as the credit crunch.

    Maybe it’s just my nasty, suspicious mind, but I sometimes wonder if there’s any connexion between Mr Brown’s raid on the pensions and the black holes in various companies’ pension funds or the closing down
    of so many final salary pension schemes.

    Perhaps Mr Brown thinks final salary schemes are unfair?
    After all, they give most to those who need it least and least  to those who need it most.
    (Eighteen consecutive monosyllables!)
    But if that’s what he really thinks he ought to start with MP’s pensions.

    And finally,
    What kind of a man thinks it a bright idea to give eighty year-olds a bonus of £0.25 a week?
    Not index-linked, but taxed.

    Brian writes: Thanks, John. I have to admit that I don’t know enough about pensions to comment on what you say. Perhaps others who do, will?

  10. John Miles says:

    There are so many important qestions about your boy’s chancellorship without sensible answers that it’s  difficult to believe he’s really God’s gift to our economy.

    One thing about him, there’s no silly false modesty, no hiding of lights under bushels.
    Mr Brown doesn’t hesitate to tell us how brilliant he is.
    “But I do know how to run the economy in the good times and in the bad. ”

    Brian writes: Thanks, John. I have to say that he’s not “my boy”, although I do feel deeply sorry for him at the moment. On the substance of the issues (which ought to be the only things that matter) Gordon Brown came out a clear winner in all three television debates, especially the last, but he has emerged from all the polls as a poor third — measured by criteria which are those of reality TV, not of serious politics; he and his party will be dragged down to shaming defeat by the accident that he lacks the boyish charm and grace of two rival politicians who don’t have a tenth of his ability. In Rochdale he was ambushed by Rupert Murdoch’s unscrupulous Sky News which in effect bugged his car, had no compunction about broadcasting all over the world the results of their invasion of his privacy, and publicly humiliated Britain’s prime minister, all for a throw-away grumpy remark, in what should have been a strictly private environment among understanding colleagues, that was unfair but understandable in the stresses and exhaustion of the moment. The moment he became prime minister he was almost — but nb not quite — overwhelmed by a banking crisis and near melt-down of global capitalism of literally unprecedented ferocity, one that no single minister or even government could possibly have pre-empted; and then by a collapse of respect for the whole parliamentary system and all politicians, especially the government and especially the head of that government, because of revelations about the abuse of MPs’ allowances which could have burst on us under any of the prime ministers of the past half-century, but which chose to burst on the unfortunate Gordon Brown. He had, and has, an unmatched decade-long record of unremitting success as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and did more than any other political leader on earth to save Britain and the rest of the western world from a full-blown slump, and he now has to listen to political pygmies like Cameron and Clegg talking as if he had single-handedly caused the recession in the first place. He has glaring character defects which make him difficult to like as a person, but also strengths which should make it impossible not to respect him as a politician. He should never have been promised or given the Labour or government leadership, but it’s too late to mourn that now. You’d need a heart of quartz not to feel sorry for this man’s Greek-tragedy-style and mainly unmerited fall from grace.

    However much people may sneer at this proud and gifted man in his moment of disgrace and defeat, the fact is that he does know how to run the economy in good times and in bad, and at the height of an election campaign he damn well has the right to say so.

  11. John Miles says:

    Just seen Jeremy Paxman’s chat with Mr Brown.
    Paxo was quite kind, all things considered – I lost count of how often , “Let’s be quite honest about this, Jeremy,”  seemed to come up – but what’s the point of kicking a man when he’s down? 

    For about three years I was once in a job I couldn’t hack.
    Naturally I was depressed and worried, and desperately anxious to avoid the sack. But when the dreaded heave-ho finally arrived I was surprised to find my overwhelming feeling was one of freedom and enormous relief, even though I’d no real idea what to do next.
    A horse probably feels like that when you take its saddle off.
    Let’s hope Mr Brown feels the same next Friday morning.

    When it happened to Mr Major he couldn’t wait to go and enjoy the cricket.
    Mr Brown says he wants to work for charity – let’s wish him well in his new life.

    And I promise I’ll postpone my final judgment on his chancellorship till I’ve seen the answers to those questions about it.

    Brian writes: John, perhaps we’re both being a little bit premature. Unless, in a situation where the Tories and LibDems combined have an overall majority in the house of commons, Clegg comes out before or immediately after the election with a very strong, unqualified commitment to sustain a Tory government in office (thus presumably surrendering any hope of getting any change in the electoral system for the life of the next parliament), Gordon Brown has at least a sporting chance of continuing in office for a considerable time. However if Labour is really wiped out on Thursday, coming third in terms of votes and winning a dramatically reduced number of seats, Brown will clearly resign on Thursday night or Friday morning. All things are possible. If Brown does resign more or less at once, however, I think he will feel it as a personal tragedy and a devastating (and in his eyes undeserved) failure more than as a relief.

    Why are people so frantically anxious to take on impossible jobs such as prime minister of the UK? Beats me!