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Debate expectations in a good place for GB and Clegg

Posted on 26 February 2010 | 10:02am

In a piece for The Times earlier this week, about how social networking was changing the way many people consume media and interact with the political debate, I referred to the TV debates between the party leaders, which will be a genuinely new development in the forthcoming campaign.

I said the relative spending power of the parties, so far as the debates were concerned, would be irrelevant. So would the millions of words of hype. All that mattered was the performance of the leaders and the reactions of the public watching live, then talking to each other.

If I may add a few more words to the hype, I would like to draw attention to the Telegraph’s coverage of its own poll today.

The state of the parties standing confirms the recent narrowing of the gap between the Tories and Labour. But it is a reference to the TV debates that interests me. I quote here not from the paper itself but from Labour’s media monitoring department’s account of it in their report on the morning papers. ‘Despite an advertising blitz, an attempted Labour coup to remove the PM & the desperate state of the economy Labour has managed to close the gap. Conservative strategists hope that the turmoil created by allegations of bullying against GB coupled with Darling’s unexpectedly forthright attack on the PM will have a beneficial impact in the polls over the coming days. The poll, which was conducted this week, suggests that there was no immediate effect from the bullying accusations. Cameron will also take comfort from the news that 60% of voters believe the television election debates will play an important part in helping them decide which way to vote. The Conservative leader is widely expected to perform the best in the first ever British general election debates. 53% think Cameron will gain most public support as a result of the three live broadcasts, compared to 20% for GB & 12% Clegg.’

I highlight the words ‘Cameron will also take comfort‘ to underline the widespread media expectation, underlined by the figures in the poll, that the Tory leader will outperform GB in these debates, which today’s survey, rightly I think, suggests will be an important factor in determining the final election outcome.

I suppose it gives us some inkling of the volume of hype the debates will generate that pollsters are asking for views on who will win this far off.

But the ‘Cameron sure to win’ mindset could turn out to be a problem for him. It is generally acknowledged that he is a better communicator than many of his predecessors, like Iain Duncan-Smith and Michael Howard. That would not be hard. It is also widely acknowledged – not least by GB – that the Prime Minister is not totally at ease with all the realities of operating in topflight politics in the media age.

But these debates will be more than a sparring of soundbites. They will require substance, policy detail, and real arguments about the future direction of the country. And that combination may well play to GB’s strengths rather than DC’s. The events are also a huge bonus for Nick Clegg, who remains little known outside those who follow closely the ins and outs of the political debate.

So far from taking comfort from the expectations on the debates, I think Team Dave should worry about them. One of the reasons the poll gap has narrowed is that people are beginning to think there is not much substance to the Tory leader, and not much depth to his team. A polished performance, from a pure communications perspective, will not on its own help him in the debates. Indeed it could exacerbate the sense that PR is all he really cares about, and that he lacks the sense of mission for the country that a would-be PM must have.

Elsewhere in the polling jungle today, a survey of Tory members shows them urging a rightward lurch focusing on immigration, as the hopeless Howard campaign did last time. This survey too is good news for Labour. It shows up another of the reasons why Cameron has stalled – he talks a lot about how the Party has changed, but scratch beneath the surface a little, and it’s pretty much the same old Tory Party.

And more cheering survey fare from The Times which reports on a poll of 100 Tory candidates in winnable seats who named Mrs Thatcher as the runaway first choice as political hero, ahead of Sir Winston Churchill. William Wilberforce and Benjamin Disraeli. Thatcher’s world view is also evident when likely new MPs are asked about the European Union. Two candidates nominated Cameron as their political hero, whilst five named William Hague, including one whose admiration did not extend to knowing how to spell his name.

All in all, rather a cheering media monitoring report this morning. And in the FT, the one actual paper I’ve read, nice to see the word ‘wibbly-wobbliness’ entering the language, from the lips of Peter Mandelson, on the subject of Mr Cameron.

  • Chris Harper

    Good point about Clegg. The debates may be the place where we get a sense of whether he is closer to Labour or Tory. He is a bit of an unknown quantity. Previous third party leaders, especially Steel and Ashdown and the SDP of course, were very high profile before an election. But Clegg has the chance to make a fresh impact. Let’s hope he takes Tory votes not Labour

  • Pauline Samuel

    Cameron is liked by the media because he gives them the impression they are who he cares about. Gordon is interested in how policy affects people, not journalists who will be fine whoever wins. I also think a lot of the venom for Gordon is because the fifty pence rate will hit a lot of the editors.

  • Colin Donaldson

    Wibbly-wobbliness? Your defence against Villa last week…

  • Chris lancashire

    As usual you are quite right – the televised debates will expose gaping holes in policy. For example, will GB be for or against cuts this week? Last week it was Labour investment versus Tory cuts; this week GB says he has consistently said cuts are required. Well he is consistent – this week.

  • s chapman

    If both Tory and Labour core supporters firm up and leave the Tories slightly ahead then in marginals with the current economic climate an undecided voter I think would vote for a change after so many years of Labour – this is the most logical outcome…looks like a Tory Govt with a maj of say 25-40

  • Alan

    I was in the studio for the recording of Question Time last night. I felt a distinct change of mood around. There was far less hostility to the govt than usual, and more questioning of the others. I think the Tories felt that the public must be influenced by the media hatred directed at Gordon Brown and Labour, but I think the public are much more fair minded. They have doubts about all the parties but the ones about Labour are well known whereas the ones about the other parties, especially the Tories , are now coming to the fore

  • Robert Jackson

    On Nick Clegg’s behaviour in the debates, I reckon there are still a lot of natural Labour voters out there in Con/LD marginals who voted tactically for the Lib/Dem candidate to eject the Tory.

    If Mr Clegg simply goes away from policy to vitriol, as do the Tories anyway, then he will see his team swept away as these seats melt magically back to the Conservatives.

  • Peter Casebow

    Hi Alastair, follow you on twitter and love reading the blog, but please update your web site design it is impossible to read the blog on mobile devices like the iPhone if you click through from Twitter the internal scrolling within the page doesn’t work and is a web no-no. Yes I can subscribe to the blog through the RSS feed and read it in my Google Reader but at the moment the site design from a practical point of view is not helping you get your message across!



  • Patrick James

    I do agree that the expectation that Cameron will be good in a TV debate is wrong headed.

    It is perceived that Cameron is good on TV, people thing, the TV debate is on TV, so Cameron will be good at it. That is how the thinking works.

    But Cameron is only good on TV for his own organised events or situations where he is protected from scrutiny.

    An advantage he does have for the TV debate is that he is in opposition and I think any debate is easier if he’s in opposition.

    What Brown should do in the debate is turn the tables on him. Use attack as his defence and get Cameron straight into difficult stuff such as economic policy. Things that Brown is at home in and which Cameron is not.

    The person who will benefit from the debate is Nick Clegg as you say. However Nick Clegg must be angling for a hung parliament. He knows it is better if Labour is “ahead” in a hung parliament for him I think he would be wise to target Cameron more than Brown in the debate.

  • Charlie Reynolds

    I will vote for the people prepared to tell the truth on our future economy and who are most likely to have the spine to take the decisions required to get us back on our feet. Gordon Brown still won’t admit to the economic disaster we are facing. The deepest and longest recession since records began with the largest debt we have ever had. You cannot go on spending like this. I know the Keynesians think a bit of inflation will do us good (Always great to have economists on hand) but it will actually destroy us. Tough decisions and plans are required now and all your talk of personality and debates and funding is a just a distraction to the real central issue.

    Get some balls and tell us the truth.

  • Alan Quinn

    What could count is experience. GB has it, as Chancellor, PM, meeting world leaders, sorting out the financial crisis. As Obama stated, Dave is a lightweight.
    But look at it this way, Dave should be now out of sight, polling at 50% but he isn’t. The polls are narrowing, Osborne and him are making mistake after mistake, Coulson could have to go if the Guardian pins any more on him.
    The debate could be the final straw when the veneer cracks and the public see the real Cameron.

  • Eugene Zelem

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  • Alan Quinn

    While some of the labour ranks were skiving at a local conference I was canvassing around Bury South this morning
    and Dave isn’t winning the punters over, once again pretty postive for Labour.