History in the making tonight, then, as ITV unleashed a terrible set and embarrassing host Alistair Stewart (fresh from reruns of classic 1994 episodes of Police! Camera! Action!) in the first ever televised Leaders’ Debate.
Others on the web can argue all they want to about the specific merits of every answer to the questions (and believe me they are doing so already, often on hilariously entrenched party lines), but I’d prefer to talk about the styles of each performer. Gordon Brown was an attack dog whenever possible, trying to nail David Cameron down on specific pledges. Cameron himself spoke lightly, trying to sound optimistic, and was surprisingly reticent on directly criticising Brown over his record. Nick Clegg sought to play the honesty card and repeatedly referred to his opponents as “you two”, trying to present the Liberal Democrats as the only alternative to the monolithic institutions of the other parties.
But what was most interesting was how the candidates reacted when the others were speaking. Cameron stood with one leg back, fixed expression, “listening” – something clearly learnt from the Obama team flown in to advise him. Clegg made many notes, but when he thought his own position was strong, he turned his entire body to face the person speaking. Brown had clearly been tutored in not reacting. For the first couple of questions he managed successfully to avoid his usual smirks and grins at what the others were saying. Unfortunately however, later on in the programme his full Youtube reportoire of maniacal grins were evident on the reaction shots. In those moments the tutelage was undone. In particular (and I have no idea whether or not this will become picked up by the media more widely than in just a few tweets), Cameron’s story about a specific person who was denied the cancer drugs he needed was accompanied by a smirk from Brown, which I thought was very unwise. Brown will do well to avoid that being used against him.
The winner of the night overall was undoubtedly Nick Clegg, who used the platform he’d long been waiting for to announce his arrival on the political scene. MPs in the House of Commons have long been disrespectful towards Clegg, muttering and often even leaving the chamber when it’s his go, so it was nice to finally see him have his moment in the spotlight. But with greater attention comes greater inspection, so it’ll be interesting to see whether his party’s manifesto stands up under scrutiny.
Cameron performed okay, but in party circles that will probably be seen as a disappointment, as he was widely expected to “win”. He didn’t go for the jugular enough – which was probably the plan, as attacking too much runs the risk of coming across as a bully – but I don’t think that was the right call. I thought he was too weak, when he could and should have been decimating Brown on his record. As an example he didn’t correct Brown when the PM claimed that all military operational requests had been satisfied, which everyone knows is a lie. He also didn’t counter the lazy inheritance tax jibe.
Brown himself spun and blustered and even tried a few jokes in the early exchanges with mixed results, but he couldn’t quite escape the fact that while he talked about all these great new things he wanted to do, his Government has had 13 years in power to do them and hasn’t done any of them. Nonetheless he didn’t make any major gaffes and neither of his opponents managed to land a killing blow either, so I think that Labour will be breathing a sigh of relief that he made it through the first round unscathed.
It was pleasing that talk of how the numerous rules of the debate would destroy any opportunity for cross-examination was proven wrong. The 4 minutes allotted in each question for argument between the leaders resulted in some interesting disagreements, fuelled by the seemingly random interjections (often halfway through a point) of a very nervous Alistair Stewart. The fear was that the programme would just be a series of speeches with no interaction between the participants, but that didn’t materialise and the viewing experience was better for it. Despite ITV’s predictably amateurish staging of the event, it’s clear that the Leaders’ Debates are here to stay. Roll on the next one.