The Second Leaders’ Debate

Last night Bristol hosted the second televised Leaders’ Debate of the 2010 General Election. The event was staged by Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News but, unlike ITV, NewsCorp did allow the live footage to be streamed to the BBC News Channel. However, interest seems to have dipped as early indications suggest that combined viewing figures were in the region of 4 million (compared with figures of 9.9 million for the previous week).

Indeed, there did seem to be less of an edge to last night’s event, as if the novelty of seeing our party leaders debating on television had already worn off. Perhaps there will be a raising of expectations for the third, and final, debate on the BBC next week as the choices become starker and the stakes become higher.

Clegg maintained the standard he set in the first debate at Manchester. Considering the tone of yesterday’s media coverage (in particular the Telegraph, Sun and Mail) and the weight that the level of Tory press smearing must have put on his shoulders, he showed real strength to top all but one of the post debate polls. I can only imagine the pressure that must have been on Clegg to perform to the same level as last time, but perform he did. He stuck to the same tactic of directly addressing the viewing public, seemed relaxed, and his answers were clear and to the point. Perhaps his main triumph was to look more human than Brown and less condescending than Cameron.

Both Brown and Cameron tried to play the “look at those two” card that Clegg carried off so well the previous week, but when they did it it looked like a focus-grouped tactic that each had suddenly remembered to deploy. Clegg does it naturally because the Lib Dems truly are the outsiders in Westminster politics.

Cameron certainly improved on the workmanlike performance he put in in Manchester, but Tory talk in the run-up to the debate of him “pulling a rabbit out of the hat” still looked wildly optimistic. Of course, the Tory press (still in denial over its total lack of influence over this election) has tried to spin their man to victory in the morning papers but the truth is that Cameron is still having nowhere near the impact on the campaign that had been predicted by just about everybody. Perhaps, in the heat of the campaign, people have started to see through the personality cult and the Blairesque spin. Indeed this is backed up by ICM’s poll straight after the debate which found that 47% believed Cameron was more spin than substance compared to 28% for Brown and just 19% for Clegg. The Tory leader has one last televised debate to find that rabbit.

Considering he is still – for two more weeks at least – the Prime Minister, it’s surprising just how quickly Gordon Brown has become the forgotten man of the debates. You could argue this works in his favour as he likes to paint himself as a man who simply gets on with the real job, a man who has no time for the flashy superficiality of Cameron, but in truth the Brown Premiership is dying a slow death before our eyes. Here he was plodding and over-technical, and his occasional attempts at humour looked desperately over-rehearsed. Perhaps the most damning thing I could say about any Prime Minister is that I feel sorry for him, but this is indeed the case now for Brown.

Adam Boulton was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the night. Right from the start he appeared to be more nervous than any of the party leaders, and he did seem to develop a knack of talking over all three for no apparent reason. Nevertheless, I have come to appreciate the ‘silent audience’ rule which governs the debate. I think it would be unedifying in the extreme to have the leaders heckled by party stooges. At least this way we are free to make up our own minds.

And so we look to the Midlands for next week’s BBC debate. Clegg will look to maintain his level of performance whereas Cameron has a final chance to put in the performance everyone has expected. Brown, it seems, will simply be glad it’s all over.

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