The First Leaders’ Debate

“The more they attack each other, the more they sound exactly the same.” – Nick Clegg

I couldn’t pretend that I was tremendously excited about the first of the televised Leaders’ Debates between Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg. I’ve never felt that such set-pieces add a great deal to the policy debate as they tend to be too staged and too polished. That said, I enjoyed it more than I expected.

These debates are much more about forming an impression of a party leader than they are about carrying out a rigorous examination of each party’s plans for government. I’m writing this in the minutes after the debate, and already I’m struggling to remember much of the substance of what was said – I can, however, remember the manner in which it was delivered.

Labour, Tory and Lib Dem supporters will all claim their man was the winner of course and, writing as a Liberal Democrat, feel free to take my opinion with a hefty old pinch of salt.

Gordon Brown, bless him, never looks like he’s comfortable on television, and it didn’t take long for him to start looking as though he was checking out the exits. To be fair he warmed up a bit and wasn’t afraid to attack David Cameron head-on, looking him in the eye as he challenged him on policy positions. Labour supporters will feel pleased that their man showed no willingness to lie down, stuck to policy and steered clear of any flashy rhetorical flourishes, but they will also have to concede that television is no friend to him. In fact, he soon started to remind me of Richard Nixon in the infamous 1960 US Presidential debate with John F. Kennedy.

David Cameron, of course, is no Jack Kennedy and he will probably kick himself at his workman-like performance in the debate. He was a bit shouty, full of soundbites, thin on substance, and seems to have a knack of throwing his head back and delivering loudly down his nose. He looked shallow and simply has to turn it around in the next debate or a Tory wobble might threaten.

Most of the polls and commentators called the debate for Nick Clegg and – to try to be objective for a moment – to a certain extent this was probably always going to be the case. A “third party” leader is always going to have to fight that much harder for voter recognition and such a set-piece was bound to be a golden opportunity. Nevertheless, he grabbed his chance with both hands, easily painting the picture of the two ‘old’ parties continuing their 65 year squabble instead of coming up with the real change the country wants. He succeeded in drawing a dividing line between himself and the other two and will certainly leave Manchester the happiest of the three leaders.

I should also mention ITV’s debate host, Alastair Stewart, who somehow always seems to be incredibly cross about something. Mercifully he didn’t intrude too much and, aside from the occasional shout at the participants to move things along, did his job well by letting the leaders get on with it.

No political anorak, myself included, will have had their mind changed by anything we saw in the Leaders’ Debate, but there are others who only take an interest once every four or five years who may have had a chance to look at things differently. The early reaction seemed to point to Nick Clegg making the strongest impact, but the challenge now is to convert that into votes on 6th May.

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