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As Cameron revises body language, focus should be Lib Dem policy

Posted on 20 April 2010 | 10:04am

With my usual indebtedness to the Labour Party media monitoring unit, may I commend for your attention a story on page 2 of the Financial Times, headlined ‘Cameron to relax poise for TV’ .

Now whenever you see an anonymous quote in a newspaper, you are entitled to assume there is a fair chance it is entirely made up. Note, for example, how many anonymous sources speak in the language of the paper’s editorial style.

I make the point because the FT is one of a very small number of newspapers whose reporters I would trust not to make up anonymous quotes, and not to report such a quote unless it came from someone whose view was worth reporting.

So when political reporter Jean Eaglesham writes that Mr Cameron will change his ‘body language rather than his rhetoric’ for the second TV debate on Thursday, I believe she has been given an accurate insight into the Tories’ debate debacle post mortem. When she reports a Cameron aide as saying ‘The problem was not with what David was saying, it was the way the presentation came across. You might see a different David who’s much more relaxed,’ I have no doubt it was said. And I then shake my head in wonder and ask: ‘Are these people really as inept as they seem?’

They – i.e he – are utterly obsessed with presentation. Can they not see that was one of the reasons he came across so badly? The constant posing. The over-rehearsed hand movements. The attempts to look statesmanlike rather than be statesmanlike. It was screaming ‘phoney’. And he was concentrating so much on all that stuff that he overlooked the rather more important question of having something to say that was worth hearing.

So yes, he should try to be more relaxed, and second time around maybe the nerves – a worrying sign in itself for someone who might soon be dealing with war, terrorism, nucelar proliferation and the like – will have abated somewhat. But what matters is what he says, not just how he says it.

There is no point either of the main parties complaining that Nick Clegg got a boost because he is the new kid on the X-Factor block and he can say what he likes because nobody assumes he will be Prime Minister on May 7. That is just the way it is. You now have to trust the British people not just to react warmly to an anti-politics message, as they did, or get caught up in a media frenzy, as some are, but also then to have the good sense to take a closer look at their policies. That is happening.

From the research I have seen, once people know that the Lib Dems want to scrap Trident whilst not wanting to do much about Iran’s nukes, all but Lib Dem diehards tend to move away. And whilst Boris Johnson may support the Lib Dem idea of an amnesty for illegal immigrants, a lot of floating voters in Tory-Lib, Lib-Lab and three-way marginals do not. Nor are their road-pricing policies meeting with much favour. Ditto the anti-DNA database for the cops policy they share with the Tories, and their plans to cut child tax credits and the child trust fund.

I had rather hoped the media would return to more policy-focused coverage post TV debate. It is not happening, as now they have moved from TV debate tactics to post election hung Parliament process and speculation, hyping Cleggmania as much as they can as they go.

Interestingly, it is now the Lib Dems who seem most intent on playing along with that, keeping their heads down on policy, whereas Labour want to keep pounding on the economy, and the Tories seem genuinely at a loss to know how to react. But if they really believe it is about body language, they deserve the panic sweeping through their ranks.

— One final point on Thursday’s debate. I understand from Adam Boulton that Sky are making it available to all other broadcasters to show simultaneously. If, as the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 keep saying, the first debate genuinely excited the British public and energised the campaign, why are they not changing their schedules to show this live? If it was a big football match, they would almost certainly do so if offered it by Sky. And even I, about as football-obsessed as it is possible to be, humbly suggest that the choice of government is more important even than a Burnley relegation battle. So let’s hear it for public service broadcasting across the public serviuce broadcasting channels.

— And one final point from my reading of the morning media brief. observation from my reading of the media monitoring report. If the Daily Telegraph had splashed on a story headlined ‘Labour peerages for leaders of business attack on Tories’, do you think the broadcasters might have picked up on it and made it a big story? Yes, so do I. So what happens when The Guardian leads with ‘Tory peerages for leaders of business attack on Labour’ ? Precisely. Cameron remains a very lucky man to have such a tame media landscape.

** Buy The Blair Years online and raise cash for Labour

  • Alex

    It’s the BBC that puzzles me most. They seem keen to pick up the Sun or Daily mail headlines, (e.g. the Brown letters) but not to follow an agenda set by more serious publications.

    They have also dropped the Ashcroft story completely, and yet they have a Panorama on Ashcroft ready for transmission…. blocked by Tory central office for some reason that they seem unwilling to reveal….

  • Shibley

    I can think of countless reasons why I don’t agree with Nick, but you’ve got to hand it to the public: they perceive Nick Clegg as the agent of change, and they like what they see. Therefore, I personally think it’s futile getting bogged down in clear differences in policy (e.g. nuclear disarmament, EU, bankers’ taxation, illegal immigrant amnesty). People like Clegg because he’s not Brown or Cameron; hopefully for his party’s sake they will like his detailed policies soon.

    I back Gordon Brown but I am thinking to the future. I am strongly anti-Conservatives, however they could still squeak through with a small majority of 16-20. I am inclined to agree with Fraser Nelson, Editor of the Spectator, in that Cameron is being micromanaged by different people less intelligent than him, pulling in different directions, such that the net direction has been 0. I sincerely hope that I haven’t misrepresented Fraser’s remarks, which I think are very perceptive.

    At the end of the day, it is for the public to decide. Many people believe that a coalition government could be a good time for Britain. My first option would be to have Brown as PM full stop. My second preferred option would be to have the Liberal Democrats Party and their voters a much greater representation in parliament. My least preferred option by far is make King the person who has violently criticising the government of this country to the potential detriment of its standing abroad.

  • Charlie

    @AC: “The constant posing. The over-rehearsed hand movements. The attempts to look statesmanlike rather than be statesmanlike. It was screaming ‘phoney’. And he was concentrating so much on all that stuff that he overlooked the rather more important question of having something to say that was worth hearing.”

    What you identify here is precisely what very many people thought about the dog you had in an earlier fight : Tony Blair.

  • Savage

    Good post Alastair. People are indeed superbly adapted to spot fake body language, so if the Tory’s are in a flap about Dave modifying his flailing hands and posturing whilst he unleashes another tiresome anecdote about meeting one legged Muslim lesbian school teachers in Burnley, so much the better for Labour. So not only will Dave’s talk be a load of lightweight rhetoric, his body language will indicate that even he doesn’t believe his own half baked wibbling.

    One thing to do would be to get this story out to as many people as possible, lots of people know Dave poses, but this will really help shift the way that people interpret what he is saying. Whoever is managing your digital/social media/PR strategy need to get this story out as much as possible, I’d also encourage people to Tweet. comment and so on when they spot Dave acting out to keep this in people’s minds during the debate.

  • olli issakainen

    I saw the first TV debate on BBC World. As we have had these debates for decades in Finland, I wrote in my earlier comment that TV exposure can benefit a smaller party – especially if their leader does well. Between the biggest parties these debates have only effect if the race is tight.
    The Lib Dems are soft on crime, defence and immigration. Their good poll figures are hard to translate into seats. In the South the Lib Dems will take votes from the Tories which is good for Labour.
    Mr Cameron´s ideas about Big Society will not work in practice. If the Conservatives were elected, they would wreck the economy and dismantle the welfare state. Cuts would also cause Scotland to become independent.

    Ps. Readers of the blog might be interested in knowing that Nick Clegg once worked for a Finnish bank here in Finland.

  • Robert Jackson

    At someone’s suggestion I watched the revised Cameron PPB with sound turned off.

    Without the words it was utterly benign – no impact – just a silent talking head – no message whatsoever.

  • Mark Wright

    Those Tories love ‘change’ don’t they?

    Forced, uncomfortable body language; a sudden change of tactic away from the previous script; sounds like Cameron is heading for his own ‘Al Gore’ moment!

    On the final point. The decision by the other networks not to carry the broadcast I interpret as an anti-Sky move. The idea having the Sky logo broadcast into possibly 10 million homes must surely make the other broadcasters shudder. Much like the Lib Dems taking part, it gives them equal billing.

    Although I’ve always felt this was the entire modus opperandi for Sky calling for the debates in the first place.

    However, I feel the BBC have an obligation to show these debates. Disgraceful. Although it could take the wind out of Clegg-mania who’s rapidly turning into politics own Susan Boyle.

    Lest we forget that when it came to final vote…she lost.

  • SC

    The upside to the Lib Dems: Nick Clegg was more energetic on the TV last week than Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Charles Kennedy is also very good on Have I Got News For You and Vince Cable once told an memorable one-liner in the House of Commons about Mr Bean.

    The downside of the Lib Dems: They would criple our economy by smashing up all banks good and bad making it much tougher for small businesses to have access to vital credit, they want to scrap our Trident nuclear defence system and want to prevent the allocation of money for a medium-term replacement, they want to rule out punitive action against dangerous Iran, they want to tie our defence policy to that of the French, they want to undermine the work of our brave troops in Afghanistan by having “Tea with the Taliban” (Ed Davey’s words), they would dumb down secondary education by taking away the National Curriculum, GCSEs and A Levels and replacing them with a “General Diploma”, they would make millions of people pay much more income tax through their local income tax schemes, they would let fewer British young people go to our world-class universities, they would reduce the social care budget, they promise to cut child tax credits and the child tax fund making life harder for hard-working families, they would cut the size of the Department of Health by half making the NHS we all use less effective, they promise “to reform the police” (I thought Sting and his mates had already done their farewell tour), they would make it harder for our cops to investigate serious crimes, they would create future international travel chaos by blocking any future airport expansion, they would burden the rail industry with extra rules and regulations, they want road users to pay a lot more tax through road pricing. Simon Hughes is still on their front bench and the less said about Baroness Tonge and Hamas the better.

    On balance, I won’t be voting for the Liberal Democrats this year.

  • Charlie Reynolds

    Here comes the spin la la la la, here comes the spin……

    You are obsessed with the trivial. How about you talk Labour policies and ideas? Are there any?

    As for trying to woo the FT (who have supported Labour since 92) because they may back the Tories, this looks a pretty poor effort. It’s obvious that DC is going to take a more relaxed approach to the debate. For one neither he nor GB will be as tense I would think.

    PS – I think you have made a catastrophic strategic mistake here. Clegg and the LibDems are going to destroy Labour unless you get your act together. For the sake of Labour I hope your private polling is different to my experience discussing this with people (I don’t have a driver though!!).

  • Sally Phillips

    I think a hung parliament might, after all, be the best solution. Gordon could go on being PM with his solid strengths stuff, the say so and doing the policy stuff requiring his intellect and know-how, with Cameron being the front man for the difficult stuff so he can practise and hone his body language and presentation and bully-boy techniques; Vince(Cable)can do the nice stuff. Vince and Cameron, too, both have good ideas (well,I happened to think Cameron’s idea about the warships yesterday wasn’t bad,If it WAS his idea) and they can tell them to Gordon, so he can sift the best ones and implement them. Nick Clegg can do his Clinton act and do foreign policy so he can go abroad and wow them there and keep our international relations good. How’s that?

    Yours sincerely

    Sally Phillips

  • Simon Patterson

    I saw David Cameron’s revised political broadcast last night. Again, filmed in his back garden. Nice backdrop on a beautiful sunny spring day. He really is looking like the ‘Pimms politician’.

    If ever a campaign was beginning to look desperate, this is it. The broadcast consisted of regurgitated clips of Cameron in a suit and tie, in a shirt and one in a shirt with a tie on. All bases covered. All been done before. All failed before.

    On the day of a party political broadcast, when the Tory lead is collapsing, when people aren’t inspired by Tory policy, did Cameron revise it with new ideas? Inspirational new policies to take the country forward? No, he showed clips from the past.

    Is that really all Cameron has got to offer when forced on the ropes?

    The truth is, Cameron is a man of PR soundbites but when pushed on policy and substance he’s continually exposed as having not much of either.

    He continues to promise his big society, a confused and muddled message which people don’t understand and promises to make real change. Ashcroft? Cuts in education and policing? Fox hunting? Changed Tories? Or same old Tories?

    He’s more prefect than prime minister. He’s all images, all PR. He’s the modern fresh face….. of old stale Tory.

  • Bob Nicholson

    Big society? More like getting the job on the cheap. My wife works for a charity; its bottom dollar, relying on the goodwill of the dedicated staff to keep turning up because they belive in the role. A bit like the public service, where I spent most of my career. We need to value vocation, not offer contracts to the cheapest external option, be it third sector or private sector. Cameron and his chums are Eton Trifles.


  • s chapman

    Simply unreal how you analyse such insignificant detail about Cameron,and even more unreal is the hypocrisy – you were the very architect of such presentation – can you honestly hand on heart not admit to it??
    You have gone on and on and on and on about Obama,you even cried(girl) at his victory and yet he was another presentaional style follower.You can never succeed in putting over GB in a good presentational light and your so bitter it cries out the computer at me !
    And its very true that rather than cosing up to the Lib Dems you should be attacking them because you are staring 3rd place in the face and much more worringly for you an SDLP like party is rising in your very midst ready to wipe out New,Old Labour,Blair plus GB minus or any other derivative.

  • TT

    Is “more for less” or “Cameron’s big society” not simply saying – we’ll take your taxes but instead of spending them on your public services, we’ll ask you to do the job for us. So actually asking the public to do quite a lot more for the same services at the same (tax) price?

  • colin morley

    Hmm – Let me see. Live football match on all channels or live leaders debate on all channels.. Difficult choice for me. Think I’ll go and watch some paint drying!

  • Chris lancashire

    Oh do give it a rest – the Tories are obsessed with presentation and you’re not? That’s what your whole raison d’etre has been for at least the last 15 years. The sheer hypocrisy or is it lack of self knowledge is simply breathtaking. And just because Brown is incapable of “doing” presentation, being an out and out weirdo, you then spin that Gordon’s “all about substance”. Frankly, if I had to I’d suffer Clegg along with his fag packet policies over Brown every time.

  • Patrick James

    That PPB with David Cameron was a laugh!

    He looked desperate talking to us in that garden, and then those clips of his speeches to the faithful looked like something out of some cheesy corporate video.

    I think that David Cameron would do much better to think about what he is going to actually say in the next TV debate rather than body language.

    He can’t use anecdotes any more because everyone knows they are such a lot of guff so instead he will have to say something, surely, about politics.

    I think that Labour should stay solidly on the ground of ensuring the UK comes through this global recession with the minimum damage.

    Leave attacking the Lib Dems to the Conservatives. As Clegg and Cameron do their cat fighting over who is best looking then Brown can simply rise above them.

  • Graham Jones

    Cameron has chosen to change ‘posture’, because he is under the delusion that he’s changed his party. His problem is the public now see the same old tory party, with every deception he utters. They are fake to the core. When Cameron faced a choice, he didn’t stick to the politics, he thought that all he needed to do was put more lipstick on, and show some leg.
    Britain is about values. We now live in a progressive country, with a progressive society that lives by progressive values, while the tories still have neo-cons, homophobes, racists and bigots entrenched in their ranks.
    As for Clegg, his main problem is his policies. He is wrong on the economy, wrong on defence, wrong on crime, and wrong on immigration.
    The election has been brought to life, but is still lacking in real debate, where ‘policy and values’ become ‘One’.
    When that happens, it is only Labour that offer both.

  • Jonathan Albutt

    I love your inciteful blogs but don’t you think you are giving too much advice to the Tories – mind you they don’t seem to be listening.

  • Bar Bar of Oz

    Have just been watching a clip of Nick Clegg taking both Gordon and Tories apart on issue of responsibility for the GFC. My goodness the wisest decision the party honchos made was to ban the audience from applauding at the debates!