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The election landscape has changed. Exciting times

Posted on 16 April 2010 | 2:04pm

My old mate Bruce Grocott, Tony Blair’s parliamentary aide and a top top man, once said that if he and I ever wrote a book, we should call it ‘why I was right all along.’ It was a variation on the theme of ‘they’re all mad apart from you and me and even you are a little mad.’

In the end I went for ‘The Blair Years’ and Bruce has yet to pen one. But I did think of his title, I must confess, as I climbed into bed around 3am after getting back from the leaders’ debate in Manchester. I was right Nick Clegg and GB would do well, and right that David Cameron would be less good at answers than questions, less good at sustained argument than slick pre-prepared soundbites for the news bulletins.

Not that this took genius level political interpretative skills. It was blindingly obvious Nick Clegg would do well. It is so tough for a third party leader, whose main public appearances are when he gets a third of the questions David Cameron gets at PMQs, and during both of which he is ritually shouted at by all sides.

So first, that has forced him to hone his vocal and comms skills and both were put to good effect last night. But the very fact of seeming to be a new and fresh face on the post-expenses scandal landscape was great news for him. Also, being the third party leader allows him to say pretty much anything he wants, because nobody really thinks he will become Prime Minister. I hadn’t realised he was promising 17 billion quid’s worth of tax cuts. Wow. And totally undeliverable.

He has yet to be put under the kind of scrutiny the Leader of the Opposition gets (albeit in Cameron’s case of a tame nature) let alone the 24 hour intense scrutiny applied to the Government. A bit of it will now come. But I will admit he did very well on a big night for him.

What was great about last night – apart from the fact that Cameron was exposed as the lightweight that he is – was that it shook up the election landscape. From the whole media – not to mention the whole of the Tory Party – thinking Cameron was home and dry, they now have real doubts. That is because they now see the public have doubts.

I assume he is still the favourite. But GB is still in the game, and Clegg’s performance has shaken up the whole debate in a way that makes the next three weeks more interesting.

I hope the media now start to understand that the debate really should be about policy and issues, as per the debate, and not the process and trivia that still tends to dominate a lot of the broadcast coverage. All three of the parties’ policies now have to be put to sustained and serious scrutiny. I certainly hope that happens. Because if it does, I believe that will be to Labour’s advantage.

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

  • Jimmy Martin

    Your talking as usual AC the polling dos’nt show that com/itv has tories ahead libs in 2nd place and Brown trailing 3rd

  • Shibley

    Interesting post, and I basically agree with it. Your central thesis that GB is still in the game is true in my belief. I am not saying this just as part of my “unfettered” support for Gordon Brown. It is because David Cameron was not strong at all. I am still bewildered what went wrong with his answers, despite being clear on his ‘strong’ subjects such as immigration. He not only failed to “seal the deal”, he may have, in fact, made the public view of him worse. I am not sure whether, deep down, Cameron can really feel that taking part in this debate was a good idea, in retrospect. Secondly, Clegg’s main mission statement obviously was to present himself as the protest vote. When Jeremy Paxman said, “So, Mr. Clegg, what planet are you?”, I am inclined to agree. While strictly speaking that the LibDems have 0 MPs at the moment, they traditionally have two senior MP (but three if you include Ed Davey). Clegg has an uphill battle in converting his protest vote into a positive mandate for him. Brown and Cameron, I feel, were wrong to agree with him all the time, because Clegg at no point returned the political goodwill. I hope you’re well Alastair.

  • TheE17Tory

    On what planet did Brown do well? Cameron demloished his taking 6 bill out of the economy argument with the civil service credit card example. Clegg kept shaking his head wen Brown increasingly desperately tried to claim ‘Nick agrees with me’. His lie over police spending was exposed. The dreaded smile kept appearing. God the stress of the Downing St years must be leading you to early dementia!

  • Charlie

    GB did well to come a poor 3rd in a three horse race. I agree that Cameron was strangely off-form, but was still able to best Brown.

    How you must yearn for TB. However hard you coach him, you will never make a silk purse out of Brown.

    Now that their man has shown a little form,”sustained and serious scrutiny” of the Lib Dems Tax and NI policies should quieten them down a bit.

  • Chris lancashire

    Still spinning it for all it’s worth eh Alastair? Sorry but Brown came third out of three and as someone put it better than I can – Brown entered the debate with low expectations and failed to live up to them.
    Your man is crass, wooden and a downright weirdo. And as for substance, you continually mistake reeling off tractor statistics and ranting about how much he can spend as “policy”.
    Clegg won it by a country mile, Cameron was solidly good, Brown remained the weirdo he undoubtedly is.

  • Stroller

    ‘GB did well’. Really ? As the latest opinion poll reflecting the Clegg effect now puts Labour in 3rd place (i.e. the relegation zone) then it would seem that many would disagree.
    GB’s (rebuffed) attempts to cuddle up to Clegg last night were pretty cringeworthy. If the best you can up with are continuing attacks on Cameron plus basking in reflected glory of the LibDems in the hope of a hung parliament, then you are well and truly out of ideas.

  • Patrick James

    On Brown:

    He did superbly imho. For the future debates he must just be as he was in this debate. He must not start trying to cosy up to the audience like Clegg or Cameron.

    Brown will not pull high ratings from these TV shows, but the rating that matters is the one on 6 May.

    What Brown demonstrated in the debate was that he is a highly intelligent and experienced politician. He knows his policies inside out and knows the opposition’s policies better than they do. His actual debating skills are miles ahead of the others.

    Brown’s successes in the debate were formidable. He attached the word “risk” to Cameron in the minds of a great many people who may not have seen Cameron in that light before.

    So, while Brown will not win on the “TV performance” rating, politically speaking he is miles ahead.

    People want to give the prize to Clegg. He was so nice, he is such a friendly chap. But why did they go off Cameron?

    Because Brown undermined Cameron on every level from beginning to end. That is why.


    On Cameron:

    It was a disaster for Cameron. The repercussions will be very great. I’ve noticed today that the “China gaffe” is being discussed widely. This will become a symbol of how inappropriate he is for Prime Minister. The China Gaffe was of George W. Bush proportions.


    On Clegg:

    He succeeded in removing Cameron as being the man for change. Clegg became the one for change.

    The main advantage that opposition has is that it can gather up all the floating voters who are disgruntled with the current government. Those are the people that Cameron has focussed his campaign on. Clegg has in one night taken away from the Conservatives a very large number of those “disgruntled floating voters”.

  • Tom

    Just want to say what a great blog. Totally agree with what you’ve been saying about cameron been given an easy ride.Hopefully it has stirred the media into scrutinizing Cameron properly, it makes you want to shout at the tv. You can see they just want him in, which is really infuriating.
    Really enjoyed the debate and once once Gordon was relaxed you could tell he was coming into it. Maybe he should try to be less confrontational but pose more questions, because you can see that once cameron is out of his comfort zone he doesnt actually have the substance to fall back on. Im really looking forward to these debates because if the first one is anything to go by people will see through cameron, people know a fake when they see one.

  • Simon Gittins

    Still got those blinkers on ?

    Clegg was good, but under no pressure, it will be different next week. Cameron was poorer than expected, Brown was embarrasing. Is Labour’s last desperate throw of the dice simply to suck up to Nick Clegg and the LibDems,it was cringewothy (your idea or Mandy’s ?)

  • Mark Wright

    I woke up this morning a bit depressed because I felt GB had not put in a good performance. I felt that there were too many of the old gremlins on display (sound not being on at the start, over-explanation, discomfort in such an articficial environment etc.)

    But this was before i’d started watching how the various soundbites had been cut up and played back in the broadcast media. Any editor will leave the ragged bits on the floor and just go for the best soundbites. And now this debate has been filleted for public consumption a very different picture is now beginning to emerge.

    Clegg still comes out on top (he’ll be even better next time) but when Cameron’s platitudes are played back over and over again they really do start to sound hollow and vacuous. GB comes across as, well GB really. But the GB brand is built on substance, not show, so the public will get what they expect.

    With DC they will have expected better. They got it with Nick Clegg instead.

    I really thought DC finsihed very well last night, the best of the lot, but it’s becomming very obvious that the emotional big finish is not what the British media are, or want to be, about.

    With this election being a two horse race (with a leading cameo possibly being lined up for Clegg) it is the two main contenders that will under the most scrutiny. And under that scrutiny and the constant repetition of the key points from last night’s debate GB’s lines stand up to the test of time better than DC’s.

    Clegg and Brown between them could, to coin a phrase, keep the Tpries out of power for a generation. It may not a marriage made in Heaven but a marriage made next to Coronation Street is the next best thing.

  • Megan

    In which parallel universe did Gordon Brown do well enough to still be in the game, Alastair? Were you watching the same debate as everyone else? Gordon was well and truly kicked out of the ball park after last night.

  • Mike Price

    My fear is that allowing the LD claims to go unchallenged may cost Labour the election. Not because the LDs will win but because they will take Labour seats in areas that are usually considered our homeground.

    Burnley, for example is in danger of a swing to the LDs – especially if enough former Labour voters vote BNP this time, which is a real possibility.

    My current home constituency of Solihull sees Labour being severely marginalised by a long-term LD campaign to tell voters that “Labour cannot win here”. They started that campaign message when they were in 3rd place 20000 votes behind the incumbent Tory turnip and they took the seat in 2005 and may well hold it this time!

    They took neighbouring Yardley from Labour last time out and are targetting another neighbour constituency, Meriden, this time using the same slogan they used in Solihull!

  • Maureen Henry

    I was pleasantly surprised how awful Cameron was last night. Vacuous rhetoric and totally exposed as the lightweight he is.Agree with you re Clegg but I thought GB’s pitch was spot on – shaking his head and wry smile as Cameron struggled to find answers.Squirmed when DC kept mentioning his little boy. Looking forward to the next debate.

  • Graham Jones

    It was the lift this election needed, and politics will be different from now on. The public needed this debate, as much as the politicians and the media, because they want to see democracy being given it’s place. A big thumbs-up to Alistair Stewart, for ensuring fair-play. He’s sets a barometer for the others to be measured by.
    The shape and texture of the election changed last night. The landscape is different, with a leveling-out now in place to an extent. Clegg has suddenly become the darling of the media, and deserves his 15 minutes of fame. But as you pointed out, he has promised an awful lot in taxes, without proper costing. GB’s kept his powder dry, while Cameron and Clegg have played their jokers after only 10 days.This is a marathon and not a sprint.
    It perhaps goes to prove your assertion about Cameron (and possibly Clegg too), that he doesn’t understand strategy.
    There is a lack of philosophy to their campaigns, only opportunism.
    I’m pleased that the Labour movement, have chosen to reassert their values with the people during the campaign, and we must never stop doing so. Candidates, activists and supporters must never forget, that it was the British people who formed the Labour party.
    It’s fighters and believers we need right now, not poster boys and Ken doll’s.

  • Rick Hove

    A bit of light relief…..

    Public Services run by volunteers Mr Cameron! we’re running a country here not a bloomin charity shop!

    If David Cameron wants everyone to join the government why’s he against a hung parliament?

    The reason David Cameron did so badly in the debates stems from his school days. There were two debating societies at Eton and the Mass Debating Society was the w-r-o-n-g choice.

    Mr Cameron, if your gonna bomb China, why isn’t it in the manifesto?

  • Sue Mason

    I was worried that GB would not match up to Cameron in this debate. But I need not have feared. DC was lightweight. He did not answer the points and avoided explaining his manifesto promises regarding Health and Education. GB explained his points clearly. Someone must tell GB to look in all drections, not just to his left. I imagine its an eyesight thing and his position on that side of the stage exacerbated that.
    Clegg did very well, and may well have given LibDem hope in some marginal seats. Lets hope they’re not Labour seats

  • Sally

    Just a thought or two after last night. I don’t suppose you saw the small polls they carried out after the debate. The BBC’s poll was an object lesson in ‘How to cheat at cards’. The pundits’ estimate was: Clegg best, Brown did well, Cameron weak. Then a BBC organised group of 400 people (who were they?) voted the same but the BBC, er, got the votes wrong, putting Brown third. ‘Question Time’ after that carried on alright though, their debate being under the first assumption that Cameron was weakest. (Dimbleby continually interrupting the Labour guest,(Ed Miliband),as he always does, but not the other guests,so the labour view gets less air space than the other views.) Then, Andrew Neil started ‘Today’ on the basis that ‘Brown came last’ and ‘what are we going to do about that then?'(though the next guest to speak was quick to say that that he thought the figures were the wrong way round.) Very interesting. (‘The Mirror’ today confirmed that “Brown came in second with Cameron trailing badly”.)
    I thought that, in a way though, it was a pity they did a poll afterwards at all, as it spoilt it really, and it is really beside the point at this stage. I thought it was just so great to hear what each had to say for once, without interruption or audience reaction, (except when they broke protocol to applaud Brown’s joke). You could really study them and think to yourself,who makes the best argument? Who has the all the qualities you need to do this job? But that was a fruitless line of thought, because you then realised they all had. That’s why they were standing there and not someone else. All three were excellent and, perversely, I found myself wishing we could use all three at once in government. On the face of it, all had the qualities needed to govern. All were the cream of the crop, the best of the bunch, the ones with the great hand of cards at birth, which is as it should be. Highly intelligent,Oxbridge, (alright, and Edinburgh,) committed to their cause, interested, interesting (except Cameron), persuasive, plausible, all spoke well, looked good, had great people skills and Gordon also has knowledge and experience, substance, wisdom, age. The only is, what is in their heads and what comes out of their mouths isn’t it? Policies,in other words. And what they do about it afterwards. I’m really saying what you’ve said in your blog today, aren’t I? Policy and issues , not trivia. I look forward to the scrutiny to come.
    Yours sincerely

    Sally Phillips

  • Stan Rosenthal

    Alastair,next time out I hope you will advise GB that debates of this kind are won by appeals to our emotions rather than to our reason.

    From that standpoint the contrast between the Tories sink or swim approach and our helping hand approach could prove to be highly effective.

  • Steve Brundish

    With the Lib Dems reverting to type with the look at me I’m new routine and the media swooning over thier new star its time for Labour to ask three key questions that will put Nick on the back foot. 1. Why does he intend to give up to a million asylum seekers an amnesty. 2 How can he be tough on crime and at the same time refuse short term prison sentences for adult burglary. 3. His refusal to come clean on Lib Dem spending cuts makes a mockery of his call for a new type of politics.

  • Alan Quinn

    I thought Clegg did well, he could take more risks, he had the most to gain and the least to lose. Cameron was poor, nevr answered GB’s questions, tried to continually alter the debate onto another topic.
    GB was statesmanlike, confident, assured and got the main theme across that it’s the economy that matters most.
    I had to laugh though today listening to Jeremy Vine’s show,which discussed the debate and the tory supporter who described Cameron as a “white, hetrosexual, christian working person in this country who’s always at the back in the queue with the Labour Party”…..and the tories tell us that they haven’t changed!

  • Alan Craig

    GB produces a masterstroke at the end of the debate by confidently breezing off stage and making a beeline for the audience and extending warm handshakes all round. This conveyed a confident and strong approach, and demonstrated good leaderrship.

    Meanwhile, Cameron looked panic sticken by whether to stick on stage or follow GB’s lead and engage the crowd. He chose the later, but in hesitating he appeared very callow and inexperienced!! I laughed very loudly – nice move GB.

    GB has been behind in the polls for so long now and battered by his own party, but seems to have awakened from his torpor and self-pity phase. GB has been taking more risks since early 2010 and needs to continue in this vein to have any chance of winning.

    Clegg was really relaxed in his presentation and delivery, and probably won it.Cameron looked confused about his debating tactics, and never really reproduced his PMQ debating form.GB’s substance and detail were good, and made the other two look like six formers. Although not all the GB’s jokes were a hit; it was essential to do them anyway.GB needs to break this stuffy image and show that he’s willing to lighten the mood.

    In summary: Cameron looked like a squash player trying to adapt to tennis, GB a tennis player producing a good and unexpected performance on his least favourite surface, and Clegg a wildcard entrant hustling his way to the final.

  • Bar Bar of Oz

    It’s a fascinating turn of events that for the next debate Cameron has been forced to define himself against supposed lightweight Nick Clegg (!) as the better leader and not Gordon Brown. Which means DC is going to have to vigorously attack Nick Clegg on national security issues while Gordon just has to rise above both of them and talk about no greater national responsibilty, experience required etc. .

    Meanwhile, unless Thursday was a fluke, Nick Clegg will deal with DC more than adequately and further diminish him. Whatever, surely Labour won’t go down the route of attacking Nick Clegg as the media is predicting? If Labour now joined forces with Cameron against Bambi wouldn’t that restore Cameron’s supposed heavyweight status?

  • Patrick McMurray

    Need to emphasise Tory inheritance tax policy – emblematic.

  • Steve Brundish

    The real winner of the TV debate was GB. The media may not be running with DC as the loser but he has been knocked off the airwaves with a double whammy of Volcanic dust and clouds of Lib Dem hot air. The Polls seem to show Libs Dems taking some support from Labour but more importantly the Conservatives are now down to the mid 30s when they need to be 40 plus. If the Tories lead in the key seats drops in the same way then its really game on.