David Cameron did everything he could to avoid any credible debate with his main challenger, short of simply saying ‘no’. So he turned to an old political tactic – make it absurd, so it doesn’t happen. When he suggested bringing in the Greens and the SNP and, hell, yeah, Plaid Cymru, the assumption was that he’d give the impression of being open and reasonable, whilst coming up with a format the broadcasters simply couldn’t buy.
The trouble is, Cameron doesn’t know enough about politics. Chuck in some women to make it all look silly? Someone did that once before – in the 1960s. The American Equal Rights Act was proposed by Johnson to legislate to outlaw discrimination on grounds of race in the face of a mass campaign of civil disobedience by the Civil Rights Movement. The ERA’s opponents, the most virulent of whom were Johnson’s fellow Southern Democrats, thought that by amending the bill to include women, it would become so self-evidently absurd that Congress wouldn’t pass it. They sure got that one wrong!
And so, in the inevitable trail from tragedy to farce, we end up with broadcasters calling Cam’s bluff and adding a trio of ladies to the line-up. I’m surprised the reluctant debater, Dave, didn’t respond that he now demanded Al Murray be added to the list. Perhaps Lynton Crosby didn’t know of The Pub Landlord? That’s the trouble with hiring immigrants – they don’t understand our ways.
And so to Salford. Media City UK looked glossy and glittering, though that particular lynchpin of the Northern Powerhouse happened under Labour. I did worry about the format and the set. A standing debate for two hours might have been a bit much for Farage’s prostate. Wot no fag breaks? But also the Westminster boys, Cam, Mili and Clegg, are tall chaps, whereas Celts (and Greens, so it seems) are short and hardy. The visual message might have been worrying. But in the event, and I don’t know how they did it, the height disparities didn’t show. Perhaps the 6′ Cam was cut down to size by his neighbour, the 5’4″ SNP leader?
Everyone was prepared and psyched up to go, armed with stats or soundbites, or in Dave’s case, a prop – Liam Byrne’s ill-judged joke as he left the treasury – the note saying all the money had gone, In the event, none of those things mattered much.
The most serious preparation had been done by Nicola Sturgeon. She’d honed a message to the 40 million or so voters outside Scotland. Unlike Salmond, who’s spent the last few months trying to provoke what I believe they call in Scotland “jockophobia”, Sturgeon presented an emollient message of co-operation to save the legacy of Beveridge and Bevan. Clever – and effective.
But Leanne Wood was the unlikely star, eliciting the first of very few spontaneous outbreaks of applause when she rounded on the cruel and mean-spirited UKIP leader. She shot from the hip, and wounded Farage in a way none of the others managed.
What of Farage? This is his moment. He changes British politics at this election, or he fails, and slinks away to the golf club with his stories; “I met that Andrew Neil once….” A voters’ panel on one of the media outlets included a man who’d been leaning towards UKIP before the debates. He hadn’t been impressed by Farage, saying “all he banged on about was immigration and leaving the Euro (sic). I thought he’d speak common sense.” Because outside of immigration and the EU, Farage daren’t say what he thinks, because it would frighten off the voters. He’s a right wing Tory at heart.
The format of the programme suited Natalie Bennett, as she could speak to a Green vision without having to deal with what are, in any case, unfair questions about “How would you pay for it?” She’s not going to be running the Treasury anytime soon, so why does it matter whether her housing plan is viable. Ask the question instead – do we need more, and more affordable housing? The answer is obvious.
Clegg was fluent and confident. He was a student actor, and he has that poise that comes naturally to a performer. It did him no good. Every time he opens his mouth the electorate puts its fingers in its ears and hums “la,la,la”. His first post-election job will be as host of Have I Got News For You, and he’ll be good at it. Mayor of London? It’s happened before,
Miliband doesn’t have the advantage of Clegg and Cam facial blandness, nor does he have the innate aggression of Cameron, whom one can imagine humiliating a new bug for sport. He has an intellectual impatience, though, which is probably why he needles Cam so much. Pointless televisual sparring really isn’t his thing, but he was game, and he didn’t appear to alienate the audience.
And so to Cameron. He looked over-made-up, and possibly over-prepared, too. The story he wanted to tell, mostly by omission, was that he was the natural Prime Ministerial figure, presiding over, towering above, the squabbling fools from a rag-bag of minor parties. That’s presumably the line the Tory press had written up for today’s papers even before the debate began. But he didn’t look remotely impressive. Sometimes he just looked bored, and not in a good way. He gave the same impression to the viewing voters that you might get if your GP kept checking her watch during a consultation. A dangerous impression to give during a long election campaign.
Winner? Sturgeon. Loser? Farage or Cameron – time will tell. Clegg, btw, was an also-ran.