Warning:A very long post.
The fact that it took 50 years for Britain to ape the American style of debates could explain the hype that surrounded the first of the three live leadership debate that was telecast in ITV1 at prime time last night. Not withstanding the traditional campaigning, it is everyone’s knowledge that a televised debate would make or break the electoral prospect of those aspiring for No. 10 Downing Street. It is easy for the Opposition to put the incumbent Prime Minister on the mat and if there is one way the graph would go for the incumbent, it is South. That is the reason why no incumbent Prime Minister has ever agreed for such a debate in the past. Probably, that is the reason why Gordon Brown agreed for the debate, as he might have been confident that his graph can not go any further down, as it is already at the rock bottom.
All through the day, it was evident that the news channels struggled to balance the coverage of unprecedented air space closure in Britain due to volcanic eruption in Iceland and the preparations leading to the debate that happened in Manchester over domestic policy. The format and the rules for the debate, that include – no clapping, no laughing (from the audience) had been agreed long ago after months of negotiations. In any other general election, like the previous one in 2005 or the one before in 2001, a three way debate would have been sneered at for it has always been Labour or Conservatives who mattered. But this election is different. Very different that there is a distinct possibility of the electorate returning a hung parliament on May 6. So, for the first time in about 65 years, the performance and the prospects of Liberal Democrats assumes significance. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg must have been happy to be placed in par with the other contenders Gordon Brown and David Cameron.
While we have the House of Commons, where the above mentioned leaders battle it out passionately week after week, there are other players (other MPs) who play their role there. In case of these debates, the leaders are on their own, at least after the telecast starts and it becomes a matter of personality and image. In terms of substance, we know very well their policies (or the lack of it), as we have their manifestoes on hand and in any case, all the parties have been campaigning for weeks now. So, it was all a matter of who came out on top – not on substance, but on style.
Pre-prepared questions from the audience ranged from immigration, economy, NHS, crime, education, political reform, social care etc – covering almost all of the domestic issues. There were complaints from the parties in Scotland and Wales that most of these topics didn’t matter to them. I wonder why. David Cameron was placed at the centre, Gordon Brown to his left and Nick Clegg to Cameron’s right. All three gentlemen in question were allowed to make an opening statement, before taking questions from the audience. Cameron used his opening address to say he was ‘extremely sorry’ for the MP’s expenses scandal, one of the most forthright apologies offered by a politician.
Initially, the debate was more formal and very diplomatic. However, informality was injected soon enough and all three began referring to their rivals by their first names. Brown drew the first blood by attacking Cameron saying ‘This is not question time David, this is answer time’ and Cameron replied back with the answers that Brown demanded. Being an incumbent is not easy. That too, having to defend in a single night, all your actions of the past thirteen years is no easy task and that is what Brown faced. Very often, he was in a position to defend what he did rather than offering the electorate what he would do if he is elected. Having said that, Gordon Brown was better than his usual self. He is one person who will bore you to death with his speech reeling of all the statistics and presenting them in the most uninteresting way possible. Thanks to whoever briefed him, he was quite quite ok, managed a decent smile and came out a lot better than what was expected of him. After all, he is not Tony Blair.
On the first question about immigration, an issue on which Labour has failed miserably Cameron scored convincingly. Conservative policy is to put a cap on the numbers coming in, although he didn’t give any figure, as pointed out by Brown. Nick Clegg’s idea is to introduce a region based system, where the immigrants will be able to work only in a certain region of the country. The idea, although looks great on paper will be more cumbersome to implement and would end up in bureaucratic chaos. Although he said that other countries like Canada and Australia has successfully implemented similar policies, he was making an undue comparison.
From there on, for every issue both of them were repeating what was there in their respective party’s manifesto. Cameron used every opportunity to attack Brown on the proposed NI increase and made sure that the viewers didn’t forget about it by repeating it very often. Clegg kept driving home the point that Lib Dems were the real alternative. At one point where Brown and Cameron were going for each other’s jugular, I had a feeling that they were pointedly ignoring Nick Clegg, making the third party seem more irrelevant. But Clegg was smart enough to say ‘The more they attack each other, they are very much the same and we are very different’. The body language of Clegg deserves a mention here. He was totally at ease, glad to watch the ‘other two’ fight, looked straight into the camera, choosing to address the millions of viewers in the TV rather than the 200+ at the studios and at the same time came to the debate having done his homework well.
From the way Brown was wooing Clegg by saying ‘I agree with you Nick’ (I lost count of the number of times he said that), it was clear that the Prime Minister was wooing Lib Dems, but it was funny to see Clegg showing disinterest in being seen along with Brown. When Cameron reeled out promise after promise stopping only short of a free trip to moon (A futute Tory government will cut deficit, stop NI increase that will save NHS £200m, get adequate cancer drugs, order new helicopters for the forces and what not), Brown was clearly sleeping. It was Clegg who caught Cameron and stopped him on his tracks: ‘David, Lets be honest. You can do one of them, but not all of what you are saying’. I am very surprised that Cameron allowed himself to be caught off guard like this. A man who is at the striking distance of making it big squandered the opportunity. If at all Clegg wanted to make Liberal Democrat more relevant, he has to convert the erstwhile Labour voters to Lib Dems. The best way to do that is to attack Conservatives more and that is precisely what he did.
All the three men in question had a story to tell based on their experience – like Cameron met a Black man in Plymouth who was worried with mass immigration, Clegg had his shock at a hospital ward finding them empty due to lack of doctors and Brown had something similar to say. Midway through the debate, it looked a little boring if not much. The debate went over by few minutes beyond the scheduled 90 minutes and all three were allowed to make a closing statement. Clegg scored here by spelling out at least half a dozen names of those who asked the questions, thanked them and ended the debate by saying: ‘There is an alternative to the two old parties. I know many of you think that all politicians are just the same, I hope I’ve tried to show you that that just isn’t true.’
In a nut shell, Brown tries to instill the fear factor in the public about the Tories wrecking the fragile recovery. Cameron on the other hand, tried to cash in on the failure of Labour for the last thirteen years and instead of being realistic tried to promise the moon. Clegg, who was clearly an underdog, came out on top having set no expectations at the beginning and cashing on ‘we are different from the other two’ theme.
Listening to Clegg for the first time, he does appear to make sense on lot of things. The man with the golden tie far exceeded my expectations, basically because I didn’t have any on him. Now that he has raised the bar for himself, it would be interesting to see how he performs next Thursday. If Cameron is serious about moving into No. 10 Downing Street, he has to seal the deal with the electorate at the earliest. After what was seen yesterday, that is by no means an easy task.