Reflections on the first leaders’ debate

Nervous. Tense. Unprepared. This is how I would describe the three main party leaders on ITV’s televised election debate. Nick Clegg sounded like a broken record (the phrase “hardened criminals of tomorrow” springs to mind), David Cameron couldn’t give a direct answer (on pretty much anything), and Gordon Brown failed to attack the others, even when the replies he should have given were handed to him on a platter (how do the Tories plan to protect services while also scrapping the NI rise? I didn’t hear anything about a VAT increase and the effects that would have).

But despite all the negatives, I have to say I was rather impressed. For three politicians who’ve never experienced a TV debate, they did remarkably well. While each candidate had their weaknesses, there were no dramatic gaffes, there was no subtle nose-picking or scratching or yawning. There were also fewer personal attacks, no questioning of allegiances or nationality or background like one would see in the much more petty style of an American debate. They stuck to discussing their parties’ policies – which is good news for those of us in this country who bemoan the growing presidentialisation of British politics.

David Cameron didn’t deliver as well as anybody, I think, had anticipated. He looked jittery, frowned too much, and failed to adequately answer questions when Brown did actually manage to put some to him. He looked like the old-school, Eton-educated politician he is – an image he desperately needs to shake if he wants to win support from the middle and working classes.
I also thought Cameron rather ignored Clegg – possibly to his detriment. Cameron spent too much time attacking Labour, and he was stood mostly looking towards Brown. In light of Clegg’s impressive performance and his likely subsequent swing in the polls, perhaps Cameron would have done better to address Clegg’s points rather than treat him like the side dish of a Sunday roast.

Gordon Brown was predictably lacklustre. As most of the pundits have been saying, as the incumbent, he is automatically on the defensive. He has the most to lose from participating in these debates, and lose he did. I don’t think anybody could really take seriously his promises on health and political reform, given that (as Clegg and Cameron said) he’s already had thirteen years to fix them. He failed to attack when he should have, and even on the economy – his supposed strength – he didn’t manage to defend his policies adequately or raise the obvious flaws in the Tories’ proposals.

I think the big surprise, however, was Nick Clegg’s performance. While he didn’t entirely manage to shake the air of a younger schoolboy who’s shocked at his invitation to the join the big boys’ football match, he held his own magnificently. He stood back when Cameron and Brown were squabbling and let them look as silly as they were being. He had sound, reasoned policies (mostly) that he stuck to and defended. That said, his weakest moment was undoubtedly crime and punishment, where it looked like he’d not done his homework. Overall, though, his performance was worthy of the bump he received in the polls.

Now all that remains is the next two debates and the small matter of actually electing a few MPs. In the next debate, I’d expect Cameron’s handlers to put a bit more makeup on him to get rid of the forehead shine, Clegg to read up a bit more on crime, and Brown to be more assertive. Tonight’s debate on Sky could be a game-changer; it will be interesting to see whether Clegg can withstand the other parties’ attacks.


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