Thursday, April 22, 2010

Second debate, first thoughts

Like last week, I thought all three leaders performed fairly creditably in tonight's debate although this time I watched them rather than listening to the radio. First things first, I'm loving these debates and am grateful that Gordon Brown became the first Prime Minister to agree to them.

I thought Adam Boulton handled the debate better than Alastair Stewart did on ITV last week, letting the talk run more without constant interruption, but it was terrible that in an event billed as a foreign policy debate, only half the time should be taken up with foreign affairs. The EU was debated but not the euro; Afghanistan was brought up briefly, Iraq barely; there was very little on our relationship with America.

Nick Clegg's opening statement was the best and he remains a tough proposition in debate who has earned the right to be taken seriously, although the novelty has gone; Gordon Brown has a certain air of the statesman about him when talking about hard facts but still looks shifty and sounds dodgy when making pledges.

I felt David Cameron had a strong night, particularly when he got angry with Brown over Labour's claims that the Tories would cut various benefits for pensioners. He needs to get angry more, angry on the behalf of voters not just for himself. There are plenty of us who want to tell Labour in fairly violent terms where to go, Cameron needs to be that mouthpiece.

Two observations immediately come to mind. The first is how Cameron at several points was using Conservative slogans used when I worked for the party ten years ago. "In Europe, not run by Europe" (1999 European elections); "You've paid the tax, what have you got" (2001 general election) and "People feel they are punished for doing the right thing" (not used, I think, but definitely proposed by Ann Widdecombe at a Shadow Cabinet meeting I attended).

The problem in 2001 was that no one wanted to listen to the Tories. I wonder whether those lines have better resonance now.

The other thing I observed was the very awkward smile that Brown gives when he has thought up a joke. Twice, I saw this strange shifting of his jowls, a flash of teeth, a slight flaring of the nostrils, shortly followed by a quip: the first about how Cameron and Clegg squabbling reminded him of his two sons at bathtime, the second comparing Cameron's Big Society with his Little Britain views.

They were decent, not brilliant, jokes but completely undone by Brown's smirk, either because he had just thought of them or, worse, because he had spotted a gap where a pre-prepared joke could be slotted in. Never trust a man who laughs at his own jokes.

Brown was right when he began the debate by saying that his substance should count more than a beauty parade. "If it's all about style and PR, count me out," he said. And that is the danger of these debates, as the polls have proved where people like Nick Clegg but not his policies if they don't know whose they are, but if it gets people interested in politics and listening to politicians, it is a Very Good Thing.

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