Friday, April 16, 2010

Leaders' debate: Nick Clegg seizes his moment in the TV spotlight.

One of the most striking things about the first ever debate between the British political leaders seeking to become Prime Minister is how much we have to learn from the Americans on this subject.

There were no little lights which specified how long any speaker had left to speak which meant it was left to the chair to tell others when they were allowed to interrupt, which he did sporadically.

I thought Brown had much better lines than Cameron had at his disposal, and it was notable that Cameron was walking the same line he has always walked, promising cuts whilst refusing to ever say where he intends to make those cuts. In one instance, Brown asked Cameron to promise that he would not cut policing in the UK. Cameron slithered around without ever giving an actual answer.

But the papers today are saying that the public have decided that Nick Clegg, the Liberal leader, easily walked away with the debate.

Clegg's revelatory performance, acknowledged by Labour, has the potential to change the political landscape, even if David Cameron, with the most to lose last night, will be relieved that in some of the instant reaction polls he came second, ahead of the prime minister.

Throughout the debate, Gordon Brown was aggressive and tried to launch a pincer movement with Clegg against the Tory leader, but the Liberal Democrat resisted on issues such as democratic reform, inheritance tax and social care.

Clegg, in effect introduced to the nation for the first time, said: "Don't let them tell you that the only choice is between two old parties that have been playing pass the parcel with your government for 65 years now making the same old promises, breaking the same old promises."

The charge reprised his opening claim when he pointed to the other two leaders, saying: "Now, they are going to tell you tonight that the only choice you have is between the two old parties who've been taking it in turns to run things for years."

In the first substantial poll conducted after the debate, YouGov for the Times found Clegg the overwhelming winner with 61% and Cameron and Brown trailing on 22% and 17% respectively.

Clegg, of course, came into this debate with everything to gain and nothing to lose. Cameron came across as weak I thought. It certainly fell far, far, short of the killer punch that the conservatives must have hoped this debate was going to deliver for them.
Alan Johnson, the home secretary, said: "Clegg won on style, Brown on substance with Cameron squeezed out."
Of course, Alan Johnson is always going to say that. The truth was that Clegg did rather well to avoid being forced by Brown to perform as his sidekick as he managed to portray both Labour and the Conservatives as the parties of yesterday.

But, with both Labour and the Liberals arguing for a progressive way forward, one was nevertheless left with a question as to what Cameron was actually proposing. He gave the odd hint - teachers should be freed to follow their vocation - but, every time he did so, he made me think of everything every Tory leader has been saying for time immemorial.

So, as a Labour supporter, I was not disappointed that Clegg came off so well, I am actually rather pleased that Cameron was, again, revealed as a man with very few concrete proposals that he could put in front of us.

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