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Clegg wins on style, Brown on substance, Cameron on shallowness

Posted on 16 April 2010 | 1:04am

As I do a fair bit of media-whacking, let me start my post-debate analysis with a few words of praise for Alastair Stewart. The ITV chair of the first leaders’ debate resisted the temptation to make himself a big part of the procedings and he moved events along at a good pace.

As a TV programme I thought it worked. I really hope that millions of people who don’t normally engage too closely in the political debate watched, and that it made them really think about the issues in this election.

I thought Nick Clegg did well. Go back and read every blog I have written on these debates – oh ok, just take my word for it – and you’ll find I have said from the start Clegg would do well. It was a fantastic opportunity for him, and he took it.

But of the three men up there, only two can be Prime Minister after May 6. And of those two, GB beat DC hands down. Gordon won the debate on substance. Cameron was the runaway winner on shallowness. He seemed to get shallower the longer it went on. Beneath the veneer there was more veneer. Penetrate the generalities and there were more generalities.

GB was strong, authoritative, energetic, policy and substance focused, but also with occasional nice light touches. He was the only one who led the audience to break the rule on clapping.

Cameron had a nicely written opening statement which he delivered perfectly well. But once they got into exchanges on policy, he seemed unsure of himself.

He was good at doing his usual – trotting out pre-scripted lines and slogans, but he was poor in the exchanges between the leaders. I have been saying for yonks that he is great at presentation but poor on policy and strategy, the stuff that really matters. This time he wasn’t even that good at the presentation.

I have been inside Cameron’s head, or trying to get inside it, for some time now as part of GB’s preparations team for the debates. And I really did expect the Tory leader to do better than this. I have been giving Gordon a real pounding on some of his past statements and policy outcomes, but DC seemed not really to be up for it. It was also surprising that within a day of launching the Big Society as his big idea, he seemed to have dropped it already. He must have seen the polling I mentioned in my pre debate blog.

I was surprised too that he didn’t push back harder – or indeed at all – on the charges from GB about the impact on public services of his economic plans. The Tory risk is going to become a bigger issue from now on in.

As for his inclusion of China in his answer about why we need to keep nukes, I’m sure that went down well in Beijing. Not.

The spin room afterwards reflected the general feeling I think. Vince Cable smiling. Alan Johnson spelling out the consequences of Cameron’s failure to match Labour on police spending. Peter Mandelson enjoying winding up George Osborne who, a bit like Cameron earlier, looked like he would rather be anywhere else. Every campaign has an ‘oh shit’ moment. George looked like he had just had his.

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  • alex

    Cameron’s attack on expenses staggers me. He bought a large 2nd home in Oxford at the taxpayer’s expense without any regard as to the public purse. He lives in London for the most of political dealings. He has used one property offset against the other for personal gain. He has a real cheek to attack 3 labour MPs when his own actions although legal are completely immoral.

    Labour should enable the public to have a long good look at Cameron. Its remarkabe that he has not been pursued by the media in the same way as others. His conduct should be a bar to office of prime minster.

  • Jamie Edwards

    So “substance” = petulance, bickering, petty jibes and talking over others?

  • GillieBC

    I agree with your comments that Gordon Brown did well on substance in the TV debate. I think he has the necessary gravitas also. Hopefully, in the next debate he will blow apart Cameron’s so called policies. Cameron’s big idea of d.i.y.Government is just ludicrous. People running their own schools and I suppose bus services and day centres for the elderly and handicapped is crazy, because it will never happen.

    The sooner this meaningless drivel masquerading as policy is exposed the better. I guess the Tories would also like to see a
    return to the destitute throwing themselves to the mercy of the
    Parish as well.

  • CeeeCeee

    I think that you would be surprised at how many younger people watched tonights debate. 5 of my nieces did, 2 teachers, one civil servant and one dentist, and they are all behind GB and cannot stand Cameron, prob to do with their upbringing, but they felt that Clegg was getting too much air time and that he looked younger and fresher to a lot of people who might be taken inby superficial things, and worryingly that might get votes. They defended GB to the end and thought that Cameron was just a waxy looking fake wearing far too much Bobby Brown foundation!

  • Ice cold in Alex

    You certainly are in the fiction business; Brown was dire, he’s running third in every post broadcast poll.

  • Patrick James

    I think the big story out of this is how badly Cameron did.

    With all his PR pizzazz he was beaten on style and presentation by Nick Clegg.

    Nobody was expecting Brown to be big on style, but Brown stayed solidly on substance from beginning to end and he did a fine job.

    It was great to see Brown pinning down Cameron on issues such as funding for police and education.

  • Graham Jones

    Gordon was really impressive tonight, and showed gravitas on the topics, without overdoing it. I didn’t expect a lot to come from tonight, but it sets up the next two debates nicely.
    Clegg did well, as expected, considering there was less pressure on him.
    Cameron was awful, and the cover-up has started already. The ITV and Sky polls are an utter sham, and they know it.

    Round two will be interesting now, and Clegg will have to handle the scrutiny that GB gets on a daily basis. Let’s see if he can handle the difficult questions, and more importantly, give the answers.
    Cameron was one big mistake tonight, instead of one big society. He is not a leader, and the Conservative party must be realising this as well.
    Clegg was more the pushy executive, and should go and work in the city.
    There was only one man there tonight, that can be trusted to steer the economy into growth, and take the right decisions for the British people – Gordon Brown.

  • Bar Bar of Oz

    Was it a pre-thought out strategy to isolate DC at every opportunity to diminish his leadership/stature? Or did GB just seize the moment when he realised Clegg was creaming Cameron on Cameron’s supposed strengths? Whatever it worked. Clegg used excellent reflective-listening and people communication skills a la TB and it was devastating to Cameron I thought. Not to Gordon because nobody expects him to have those skills and in any case nobody warms to Gordon, the best one can do is respect his ability. But for Cameron – on the one side GB hitting him with policy substance and Clegg on the other trumping him on the “change” argument – the whole experience must have been a dawning nightmare.

    Sky TV body language expert afterwards described Cameron as “the pig stuck in the middle being skewered from both sides” and said Cameron’s body language revealed he was aware of what had happened to him.

    If Nick Clegg can keep this up in the next two debates then Cameron will be looking like he’s not up to the job. Tories must be cursing having agreed to giving Clegg equal time. And it doesn’t help Cameron that Clegg also looks and sounds like him – but better.

    Two fave moments I took from Sky – GB bounding down off stage at the end to shake the hands in the front row looking energised and confident, second, PM and AC spinning away to the media looking on top of the world. As well they might.

  • statechaos

    The usual predictable condemnation of David Cameron.It is easy to praise Nick Clegg as you don’t see him as any real threat, and he took full advantage of this unprecedented exposure. But close scrutiny of LibDem policies is required eg. are they going to tell a footballer that he can only play for Celtic and not Man. City with their ludicrous immigration policy? No applause, beat-the-clock responses, and the leaders not being allowed to respond to challenges in the appropriate order meant the format leaves a lot to be desired.Brown did not have a disaster but every respected pollster scored him last.

  • Patrick McMurray

    After debate: Gordon need to talk more about VALUES. He is decent and the Tories are shits. Their heart is not in decent public services. Gordon should allow this to come through.

  • Murray Botes

    So it was Cameron ‘trotting out pre-scripted lines and slogans’?
    And GB coming out with improptu witticisms was it?

  • Richard

    All the polls showed the same result. Brown lost. he did not win. He is the incumbent prime minister and yet clearly came last against two young novices. Only if you factor in the incredibly low expectations can you find any glimmer of good news.

    Leaders have never previously taken part in debates because they have everything to lose. Brown’s position was sufficiently bad that he must have thought he had little to lose. And yet he still lost.

    To the people in my household (who apart from me take little interest in the detail of politics) Brown appeared confrontational with Cameron, insincere with Clegg, did not listen with respect to the other two (grimacing, shaking head, and furiously scribbling notes, whereas the other two would tend to look impassively at the speaker) and always doing that weird smiling/scowling thing that makes him look downright odd.

    If you are involved in coaching him I suggest you tell him not to try smiling at all. He looks better serious.

  • Chris lancashire

    Spin on! Brown was his usual appalling self and came third (that’s out of three Alastair!) on every poll. Do not mistake tractor statistics for policy and the blunt, overbearing shouting that got him through PMQs just doesn’t work here. He looked the failure that he undoubtedly is.

  • Tricky Dickie

    Did Cameron actually answer a question?
    Lots of sound bite, anecdotes but no substance.
    He was very weak on his NIC policy.
    As I read somewhere…..when trying to lose excess fat to reduce weight you go on a managed diet…not chop of a leg!

  • Robert Jackson

    I heard the debate on the radio.

    Alastair Stewart came over as umpire in a three boat version of the boat race – had mental image of team DC having oar clashes on both sides. V satisfying.

    Good debate – yes, Dave, it’s answer time.

  • RH

    GB should…

    1) …stop smiling (nervously, or otherwise) while the other two are speaking about serious subjects. I know it’s nerves, but it makes him look as if he finds the subject itself funny, rather than the other two’s comments.

    2) …structure his comments better. Within the given time constraints he should frame his responses on each and every subject as follows:
    a) defend the record (and provide stats/numbers to reinforce the point)
    b) give a sound bite for the future strategic policy direction
    c) articulate the specific future actions he will take to make the policy [in b) above] a reality

    3) …stop saying “I want to…” and replace with “I will…”, or “My Team and I will…”

  • Richard Burnell

    So who are you lads renewing Trident to deter?

    Your spinning is only effective for those who did not see the match: for those who did see the match, it just makes your judgement look pathetic. Not myopic, but blind.

    The Emperor will be happy with his new clothes today.

    With friends like you GB does not need enemies: is TB paying you to stuff GB after all his disloyalty with him?
    Mandy too, friend of GB?

    You are all telling GB how brilliantly he is doing, when he gave a **** performance. His welcoming smile as artificial as a gas chamber guard, and I can only assusme you did not watch the debate at all.

    Looking at the sits vac perhaps.

    GB was unbelieveably wooden, and you getting him to pray with his hands is a give away: is he joining TB in his conversion to Rome?

    Rose tints off Al, and on May 7th you will be after a new career. Or will your orange friend re-employ you to help Mandy become new Red Leader? …to complete the long march into the wilderness for New Labour?

  • Andy Farrell

    You can tell how bad last night was for Green Dave by the limited handful of comments from the Tories who often jump on the blog in far bigger numbers.

    Note free ‘Dave’ was not so note free and if that’s the only retort they’ve got it suggests he went down even worse with them than he did to most of us who thought he would actually be quite good in this kind of format.

    I do think whoever advised GB to call the Lib Dem Leader by Nick when he and others in the party have made it very clear that for now he’s not interested in forming partnerships made a mistake and the opportunity to bat back with what looked like shuns but agree his performance will now bring Lib Dem polices under real scrutiny.

    My only on hope is that the lovely media don’t just target the Lib Dems now because of his justified success last night but keep Green Dave under the pressure that his performance deserves.

  • Mark Wright

    Hmmm, regret to say I’m not in step with you on this one AC.

    First off I couldn’t stand the ITV presentation. It looked liked the set of Harry Hill’s TV Burp. All brightly-lit studio and garish colours with a plastic finish. And the sound guy who cut off GB’s opening lines should be shot. And how come they hardly mentioned the name of their respective parties?!

    GB was at a visual disadvantage being neither in the centre, nor on the left of the screen. Too many shots from the left of the lecturns showed GB isolated to the right of the screen.

    Performance –

    * DC – Started weak but finsihed very strong. Shallow? Of course. But the delivery on his final statement was superb coupled with a very favourable camera angle. However, his lack of clarity on so many key issues can be exploited over the next 2 weeks and I think he will be exposed. However, due to his strong finish I felt he beat NC at the end by a nose.

    * NC – Always the one to watch and did not disappoint. Would like to have a beer and a banter with him. Great sarcastic facial expressions. Had nothing to lose and it liberated him. Looking forward to more sarcasm next time around. Started off the best but lost a little by the end. Clearly loves being on TV! Lib Dems odds slashed from 200/1 to 66/1 as a result!

    * GB – Regret to say I was not too impressed which is a shame as I have been VERY impressed by GB of late. Yes he was strong on substance but too often he got bogged down in detail without allying it to a simple killer line. Needs to shorten his answers so he doesn’t keep getting cut off by the moderator. The message/overall idea/ideal wasn’t clear. Will only get better as he relaxes over the weeks. Good that BBC are showing the last one.

    So, in summary. 1st – DC (just), 2nd – NC, 3rd – GB.

    GB needs to clarify his message and summarise his answers by a simple idea or line. Inject a bit more of himself rather than just the facts. A couple of jokes about shouting at people etc wouldn’t go amiss. A couple of killer lines towards DC. Don’t worry about Clegg. If I were in GB’s shoes I would simply turn around to DC and say “But David, they’re just words. They sound nice but they don’t really mean anything.” Then highlight to him the millions of people for whom DC’s words are utterly irrelevant. Keep on pushing that line “Just words.”

  • dc

    i think there is still so much room for brown to hammer cameron. The people in business that he so much bangs on about, well in the telegraph the other day 50 economists, academics, signed a letter questioning tory economic policy! brown should use it!

    the big society idea i feel is actually started to be questioned by people, even if it is not people in the press. people have started to realise that government does need to provide services, including schools, and the thought of aving this replaced by volunteers and charities is unnerving. I think Brown should hammer home that fact that whilst charities are fantastic and do great stuff they rely on volunteers and people that want to volunteer are already doing so. is there really much scope for a mssive expansion of charity volunteer base? i think not!

    overall i think brown did well on the debate. ithink he may have lacked a bit in offering something for the floating, borderline voter.

  • Huw Spanner

    Committed as I am to Labour, I didn’t think Gordon did well, though I was relieved that he didn’t do too badly. It was like a three-way sword fight, and he was the man in the diving suit. Nick Clegg I thought was dazzling, and it didn’t just seem to be presentation, as David Cameron’s pitch did. I think Clegg really hurt the Tories by taking their pitch for the “vote for change” and doing it better, with less smarm, less sheen and more sincerity. I am hoping for a balanced (“hung”, if you insist) parliament, and I thought that Clegg persuaded last night that he could play a major role in a coalition government – and of course everyone knows that Vince Cable could.

    Two questions, though. Can Clegg maintain this advantage over the next two debates, especially when his performance is no longer such a surprise, or will the Tories work out how to neutralise him? And will that actually matter – are these debates the best of three, or will most of the audience watch only the first one?

    Two last points: everyone has been saying that these debates are the shape of things to come. I wonder if that is a good thing – let’s be honest, would Clement Attlee have got into power in 1945 if he’d had to debate with Churchill on prime-time TV? And anyway is it necessarily true? A three-way debate is a little unwieldy – and if a balanced parliament were to result in genuine, far-reaching electoral reform , we might find that future general elections would be a four- or five-horse race in England as they are in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

  • Alex Sewell

    Apologies in advance for such a long comment.

    My first point is: why doesn’t David Cameron EVER respond to challenges made to him about inheritance tax cuts for the richest people? I NEVER hear him reply to that charge. He needs to be directly challenged for an answer on that point.
    I thought Cameron ‘performed’ quite well but as usual he was trying to hoodwink the public with his ‘I’m a really nice guy who will be REALLY honest with you… honestly I really am nice and so honest’. Oh come one, it’s just a veneer. The Tories are just desperate for power and acting as if ‘as long as we keep up this bs and don’t put a foot wrong re what we really believe in, they’ll vote for us’. Underneath that veneer lurks the same old Tory values that WE are all aware of.

    Talk is all very attractive but Gordon Brown WALKS THE TALK and that is what really matters.

    I remember GB some time ago, his party election speech I think, reminding the party/country of Labour’s key achievements since in power. I’d like to hear that again. I think we need a reminder of what the Tories were like in power, what they REALLY stand for, and what Labour have done to improve the UK public’s lot.
    GB is making a point that things have improved since he has been in power, which differentiates him from TB of course, but I think that gives the impression of starting from scratch. There were many many things Labour can be proud of before GB took over too, and I think the public need reminding of this, as evidence of Labour’s proven track record. One to be proud of and grateful for (especially when compared to the Tories record).
    Gordon Brown did very well. It really looked like he was born to have this debate. Looked like he was thriving on it. He obviously loves politics and his job and I think that is to be commended. I’d like to see a couple of jokes (aimed at DC) made with a straight face from GB, although his smile is definitely a winner. Maybe he can thank DC for his compliment, quoted in the news yesterday, referring to GB as being “awesome” and “a figure of colossal power and intellect”. GB is a very humble man it seems, so a little bit of dry sense of humour (delivered well) on that point could make people laugh and really rattle DC.

    Am I the only one that thought Glegg was lacking in depth?

    Oh, and I hope GB asks DC what the Tories would do with the BBC were he to make it to office. I have a strong feeling the Tories will be privatising our beloved ‘Aunty’ as soon as they’re in power, in repayment of Murdock’s (Sky, The Sun & The Times etc) media support. If the Beeb goes down the pan, this country is really going down the wrong path.

    Last point: Did I hear DC say that he met a 40 year old who moved to the UK when he was 6 years old and worked in the Navy for 30 years? Does that mean that guy joined the navy when he was 10 years old? Surely DC got that wrong?

  • David Kingston

    GB got more confident as the night went on. There were times that Dave looked lost. What I found disappointing was challenges that were made to each other were not followed up. No real debate took place and as a result the details of each others’ policies were not examined. This protects the opposition parties who should face the scrutiny that Labour does, but for some reason are allowed to get away with sound bites rather than detail.

  • Jacquie R

    The increasing(and not underserved) popularity of Nick Clegg poses a serious danger to Labour in the marginals. By taking Labour votes, the Lib Dems are likely to deliver a Tory Government. The only way to avoid this is by mutual tactical voting, e.g. Labour supporting the Lib Dem candidate in constituencies they cannot win and Lib Dems supporting Labour in consistuencies they cannot win.

    This tacticl voting message needs to get across as the best option, even if the two parties can’t officially endorse it. The Lib Dems and Labour have far more in common than either has with the Conservatives.

  • r duncan

    david cameron was shocking. i cannot understand why the press is not questioning him a bit more. his comment about china says it all. can anybody confirm that Laura Kuensberg of the BBc is a closet tory

  • allan sayers

    I pretty much agree with alastairs assesment of last nights debate. I dont know the viewing figures yet but if we can raise viewing more there is a good chance that labour will win, Cameron and Osborne are great at communicating in small sound bites usually but when the questions are asked the answers are wooly. In the gay times interview David asked if he could start the interview over again as he knew he had gotten some of it wrong. Imagine saying that in a job interview, let alone a job interview for Prime Minister.

  • Ben G

    GB did much better than I expected. He looked like he was enjoying it.

    But the real story is the fact that Cameron didn’t win, or even come close – it will be a monkey on his back for the rest of the campaign.

  • c addo

    why is nobody questioning cheesy dave about his china comment? Dave is a lightweight and not fit to be prime minister of this great country. Nick clegg wasalways going to go for the populist ideas. people forget he has been an MEP.he is no different from any other politician.

  • Charlie Reynolds

    I knew Brown would be bad but hadn’t relised how poor he would be. He didn’t have the look of a man who had spent 10 years as the ‘iron chancellor’ (mates with prudence etc) and over 2 as Prime Minister. As I watched I couldn’t help feeling that Cameron was already Prime Minister, Gordon led some tired old small party and that Cleggy was the leader of the opposition.

    Really funny blog Ali. You continue to shout about substance and policy but then talk only about PR and superficial things. I’m confused. Are you talking bollocks?

  • paul

    Excellent summary from the (LibDem-leaning) FT’s election panel. Not much more to say –

    Some things appear clear still. Gordon Brown had a bad debate. Most polls place him a poor third and his aggressive style didn’t do serious damage to David Cameron but made Mr Brown himself look bad. His contempt for David Cameron was far too visible and did not look attractive.

    The question is whether this will lead to a division among his campaign team. Mr Brown is surrounded largely by macho, aggressive testosterone-fuelled men who encourage his instinct to try to crunch his opponents. Alastair Campbell – one of Mr Brown’s debate coaches – clearly still feels the approach worked:

    “GB beat DC hands down. Gordon won the debate on substance. Cameron was the runaway winner on shallowness. He seemed to get shallower the longer it went on. Beneath the veneer there was more veneer. Penetrate the generalities and there were more generalities.”

    “GB was strong, authoritative, energetic, policy and substance focused, but also with occasional nice light touches. He was the only one who led the audience to break the rule on clapping.”

    Perhaps Alastair feels the need to keep spinning but I suspect he really believes this. This is not good news for Labour. They are right to try to damage David Cameron and make him look insubstantial but the approach deployed in the first debate seemed counter-productive even if Mr Cameron was subdued. The question is whether they can adapt the approach so that he can still undermine Mr Cameron without seeming so aggressive himself.

  • Richard

    @charlie reynolds. You and William Hague seem to have watched a different debate to the one everyone else saw.

  • Cato

    Eddie Izzard should stick to what he does best – failing to raise a laugh as a comedian

  • Keith McBurney

    What hallucinatory substance is Brown on?

  • Hazico

    Hi Alistair,
    I keep seeing your “tweets” on LL about your views on NC.
    Could I offer my perspective please, and say the public hate this kind of negative catty commentary?

    We hear it all the time from the Tories’ campaign; I’d hate to see it in the Labour camp too:it just looks like sour grapes.

    I think Clegg has struck a chord by appearing constructive
    and open, not playing political cat and mouse games.
    The media village has a very different culture to the average member of the public; but it will be they who vote on May 6th!

    We just want a bit of normality and transparency, as well as substance on the issues!

    Thankyou for all you are doing for Labour though.