Friday, 16 April 2010

The Inevitable First Debate Appraisal

By political blog law, seemingly, it is mandatory to have an article of the debate up within 24 hours. Just skirting the deadline comes this little ditty.

Stale at times, last night's debate was not the world's most fascinating television. No one really made a tremendous gaffe, though Cameron is getting flak for suggesting we may need a deterrent against China, at the same time while Clegg is popularly said to have won it he never really scored any knock-out blows. Here is my appraisal of the three leaders.

Nick Clegg

The consensus appears to be that Clegg has won it; a consensus so strong that even Cameron and Brown agree with it. It will not horrify anyone for me to say that I agree. Clegg was calm, confident, his body language was excellent (he seemed to be the only one who consistently looked into the camera), he was good at explaining his policies (I recall, on at least two occasions, his policies being criticised and Clegg outlining them with such confidence as to completely rebuke the argument). Occasionally he stuttered, and occasionally he was a little too shrill, but on the biggest night of his political life Clegg can be forgiven for such things (I hate to imagine what would have happened had he done poorly, his days as Liberal Democrat leader may well have been numbered). At times he was Prime Ministerial. Clegg had always had the most to gain from the debates. He is relatively unknown amongst the wider public, and the debates give him a chance to enhance his profile, because he was so unknown there were no expectations on him. He was also advantaged by the fact that the maths of a hung parliament may mean that either Brown or Cameron needs him to form a government. As such neither really attacked him, despite Clegg's seeming attempts to attack them. 'I agree with Nick' seems to have reached the status of internet meme. Nonetheless, despite all the praise, hype and so on, I can't imagine that the Liberal Democrats will gain more than a few percent in the opinion polls, the public simply do not change their mind that radically that fast. However in Liberal Democrat held seats and in Liberal Democrat marginals Nick Clegg's performance is sure to energise activists, to solidify support and to be encouraging towards wavering voters, in areas like Cornwall where the Lib Dems look like they could potentially be in trouble, this will be a big boost. At the same time Clegg's performance will aid him in a hung parliament. There can now be no one who can doubt that Clegg would make a credible Home Secretary or Deputy Prime Minister in a coalition government. Nonetheless Clegg now goes into the next debate with renewed scrutiny, and serious pressure. If he does not repeat his performance next week the first debate will be ruled as a one-off and he may even regain his 'Calamity Clegg' nickname which he has fortunately shaken off.

Gordon Brown

Reviews of Brown seem generally negative. I'm unsure however. While Brown did not dazzle us in the way that Clegg did I think he exceeded expectations. Everyone expects Gordon Brown to be bad in front of a camera, which has never been his strength as a politician. He is not media savvy. His trademarks are substance and solidity. Like Clegg, therefore, he benefits from low expectations. A bad performance by Brown would not have been disastrous because no one expects Brown to perform well on camera. Brown was OK. He didn't make any gaffes, he was well armed with facts and figures, and he seemed human. Ultimately Brown held his ground. His attempts to make jokes often fell rather flat but I actually really liked his 'It's not question time David, its answer time.' line when Cameron dodged his questions. He wasn't bold or impressive, but at the same time he didn't frighten the horses.

David Cameron

For me Cameron was the least impressive of the three. He had the most to lose. Tony Blair had refused debates in 1997, 2001 and 2005. The reason is simple. A polished media performer at his best Blair came across on television as likable, intelligent and genuine, but in a debate there are far more variables flying around, the control is out of the hands of the politician, and things can go very wrong. While it wasn't a debate per say, in 2005 the three party leaders were each questioned in front of a live studio audience on Question Time. Blair was asked a question by one of the audience about not being able to get an appointment at her GP's within 48 hours. This is something that both politicians and the press alike had missed and Blair was flabbergasted as multiple members of the audience agreed with her that this was indeed the case and the result of NHS targets. The next day the papers were full of follow-up stories. Cameron is much like Blair in 1997. Young, media savvy and a polished media performer he is in many ways the opposite of Brown. He is also leading in the polls and could not expect to gain much support from a good performance. We all expect Cameron to come across well on TV, we expect him to be charismatic, and instead what we got was something different. He was unimpressive. He didn't make any huge screw ups or anything but he simply wasn't dazzling or exciting. His best moments were in his opening and closing speeches I thought, but during the debate itself he didn't look at the camera, he seemed to have trouble knowing what to do when Clegg and Brown were speaking, and he used far too many anecdotes. Anecdotes are a good tool for communication, (though they are arguably spurious as evidence) but overused they can be hackneyed. Nonetheless, Cameron was generally competent, he just didn't wow me, and I suspect his rhetoric about taxes, immigration and crime will go down with core Conservative voters.

In conclusion, I greatly look forward to seeing tonight's inevitable YouGov poll to see what the effect has been. A poll today showed the Lib Dems up three points, however I believe the only respondents were viewers of the debate, which is a rather self-selecting sample.

1 comment:

  1. A fair summary. But like most pundits, we got the bounce a bit out!