Friday, 16 April 2010

Debate reax

Quick reaction to last night's first-ever prime ministerial election debate:

Brown was solid and sound, but also stodgy and unexciting. He didn't exploit his incumbent status nearly enough (but then presenter Alastair Stewart had disrespectfully chosen not to use the words 'prime minister' in introducing him). His attempts at humour, sound-bites and references to popular culture were squirm-making as usual and in future should be avoided at all costs. Brown looked pale and ghostly: he should ask David Cameron for the number of his tanning salon.

In purely stylistic terms, David Cameron was more impressive: nimble, quick-witted, and with the most succinct and memorable summing-up of the three. His main line of attack against Brown - you've been in power for 13 years, so why haven't you implemented all these proposals (on voting reform, etc) before? - was a powerful one and will be very difficult for Labour to counter in the coming weeks.

Nick Clegg may have 'won' the debate, but without taking away anything from his strong performance (he grasped the format better than the other two, responding to questioners by name, engaging directly with the TV audience), it's easy for a party with no record in office to score against present and recent incumbents. I'm not sure the Lib Dems' poll bump following this debate will last long.

My overall reaction to the debate was a fairly negative one. The big downside of this move to US-style debating is that it risks turning the election into a beauty contest between three men. But in Britain we elect a party not a person, a Parliament rather than a personality. If it had been Alan Johnson (say) debating William Hague and Chris Huhne, the outcome might have been very different. In a televisual showdown between Brown, Cameron and Clegg, the latter two - younger, more photogenic, both 'new faces' - will always come out on top.

For the upcoming debates, Labour needs to work harder to present the advantages of experience over novelty value, competence over showmanship: but saddled as it is with the tired-looking, over-familiar and under-performing Brown, this is going to be an uphill struggle.

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