Five thoughts on the debate

April 16, 2010
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I watched the debate last night with a group of people invited to a bar in central London by a PR company. I have five reflections.

1. Clegg won, therefore Cameron "won." The conventional wisdom before the event was that Clegg was the likely winner, simply by having a third of airtime. That he then proceeded to exceed that expectation was impressive. He had just the right mix of stories, good examples and calculated outrage. But because he won, Cameron also won too—that Clegg is the winner has little electoral significance, and nothing fundamental changed last night in the frame for the election as a whole.

2. Brown did better than expected, but still came in third. In one sense Gordon Brown could have been said to have "needed" something to change in the debate. It is, after all, one of his few opportunities to shift the nature of the race, and get people to "take a fresh look at Labour." My sense is that didn't happen. That said, Brown was good in parts, and certainly wasn't notably the worst of the three performances. He avoided the trap of appearing to patronise his two, younger, likely less knowledgeable opponents; a genuine risk, skilfully avoided.  His was also the strongest message, ramming home the "don't risk the recovery" line again, and again—which will, I suspect, have sunk in with the audience at home. (By contrast, Cameron's message, for instance when he mentioned the big society, seemed much less clear.) All that said, Brown's communicating style is obviously more forced than both his opponents, and his sentences still feel like deeply condensed PowerPoints. It was an adequate performance, but not close to the game changer he needed.

3. The pre-meditated, calculated jabs didn't work. One of the sports of last night was watching how the debate prep had worked out. Would anyone swing big? When would each leader use the pre-heated lines in their back pocket? It was, therefore, especially notable how few of these attacks worked. The tendency of all three to rely on ready-made everyday people—worst example, Cameron's "the other day, I met a 40-year-old black man"—looked horribly forced. Brown's worst lines were his sly jabs about Michael Ashcroft and so forth, which made him look petty and political. Clegg used his "the real problem here is the two of you bickering" line much, much too early. In this battle it seemed to me that Cameron came off best, simply by having the fewest pre-heated lines.

4. The format really did work. The second piece of conventional wisdom before the debate was that it would be dull. I thought that. Cameron even worried it would be. But, in fact, this was a genuinely compelling piece of political theatre—with more than enough interaction and niggle to interest. The lack of ad breaks actually became notable as the evening went on, simply because its unusual to have politics presented as a movie rather than a soap.

5. Brown now has a very tricky calculation to see if can change things around in the next debate. The next debate now becomes awfully interesting. (It is on foreign affairs, and on Sky.) The legacy of US presidential debates, most notably the second debate between Bush and Gore in 2000, is that the person who "lost" the first debate is then watched very carefully in the next round to see if they change tack. In this case, this would mean Brown doing something different next time. But that will be difficult—he must constantly battle the risk of appearing to be a walking Wikipedia, a risk Gore also faced against George Bush, the more naturally talented communicator. If I had to guess, I'd say the likely outcome next time is almost the same, with perhaps less leeway given to Clegg, now more of a known quantity.

Thoughts? Also, the real joy of the US debates comes in the post-match SNL parodies. This one, after the first Bush vs Gore debate in 2000 is my all-time favourite: the phrase "lock box" still makes me smile because of it. Let us hope someone—Armando Iannucci? Charlie Brooker? Chris Morris?—will do the same for this.