Friday, April 16, 2010

The morning after the night before - I agree with Nick

Nick Clegg can afford to feel very pleased with himself this morning - he stormed the debate yesterday. Frank Luntz, the US pollster, was on the Today programme explaining why he thought Clegg did well, based on a live 'worm' tracking poll he was carrying out with a focus group of selected voters. His view was that Clegg's relative obscurity was a key advantage - people didn't have a pre-conceived view of him, so when he took on the mantle of the outsider and honest broker, comparing himself positively to the faults of the other two parties, that was the story that the public were willing to buy. Whether his success translates into real votes that will be cast in his party's favour on May 6th is a different matter. He was always the one with the most to gain - the event placed him on an equal footing to the other two parties as he was allowed into the leadership sandbox to play with the big boys. He wasn't perfect - he seemed to be referring to Trident at every occasion, giving the strong impression that the Liberals were about to scrap the nuclear deterrent. This isn't the case as they actually want to consider replacing it with another, locally-sourced nuclear system. Equally, he keeps touting it as part of their debt reduction plans, when the significant drawdown for the Trident replacement funding won't kick off for a few years yet - although the massive costs of developing a replacement would start climbing very rapidly.

Luntz's view of Brown ties in neatly with the official party line that while Clegg had the style, Brown had the substance. I always thought that he'd do well in this forum and he did - he looked at ease, comfortable and in command. He looked like a Prime Minister on top of his game, so for my money, Gordon significantly outperformed the somewhat poor expectations that had been forecast. Much as I hate to use the comparison, it is a little like the Osborne effect in the Chancellor's debate a couple of weeks ago - many (including me) had very low expectations of George Osborne's performance, so if he managed to avoid hunching down in a corner and rocking back and forth with his hands over his ears, then he was doing better than expected. Osborne didn't drop any clangers and even managed the trick of looking almost human, so he did well. I never rated Gordon's chances that low by any means - he is more at home in this environment and his undoubted mastery of facts and figures should give him the tools to do well - but there were those talking down his likely performance, but he did rather better than that level of expectation. He even made the first joke at the expense of the Tory posters, saying that he liked the photo of him that they are using.

In stark contrast, we have Cameron's performance. For my money, he underperformed compared to his expectations. I doubt that he will have lost any solid Tory voters as he didn't make any major gaffes - apart from bracketing China with Iran over the nuclear debate, which may cause some minor diplomatic ructions - but some of the policies were exposed to heavy criticism. His constant referral to the rainbow of supportive voters that he'd met over recent days became tiresome as he rolled them all out to support each and every carefully-scriped point, but he was floundering in the face of a pincer attack from both sides. Cameron was unsure about whether to attack the Liberals and Brown wasn't minded to take them on, so fire was concentrated on Cameron and he flunked it. Post-debate, the Tories were spinning like mad in Manchester that their man had won it, but not even the Mail's sketchwriter, Quentin Letts, was buying that line, according to observers in the spin room. Interestingly, on a live Question Time afterwards, Michael Gove seemed anxious to move on to the next debate, which is indicative that the Tories don't feel that Cameron did well. I think Alan Johnson nailed it
What we saw last night is Cameron is not good under pressure, and, faced with that, it was a different kind of Cameron we saw last night to the one we usually see where his sleeves are rolled up, where everything is prearranged and it is a kind of PR stunt.
This raises serious concerns about Cameron's ability to do a job that is without parallel in terms of pressure. As predicted, when he gets pushed away from his script and his soundbites, he starts to flounder.

The debate itself worked - we had 90 minutes of uninterrupted, solid political debate. It certainly wasn't the stilted, sluggish event that many - including me - feared, suffocated by over-regulation and excessive rules. I don't think that the ITV presentation was very strong with a number of technical issues clouding the matter and I'll hope for better from Sky and Adam Boulton and a further upping of the game by the BBC, who should be able to do this live broadcast stuff in their sleep. Overnight viewing figures suggest an average of around 9.4 million - a respectable figure and higher than the figures for the Question Time BNP edition last year with a peak of 9.9 million. We've got two more of these to come and if they are this good each time, they promise to be cracking political broadcasting.

So, what does this all mean? Is it a "game-changer?" I don't think that any tribally-devoted voters will have been swayed by last night, from whichever party. Labour will be happy that they and Clegg outshone Cameron by a decent margin, but the positive spin for Clegg may prove counter-productive. As Nick (Robinson) pointed out on the Today programme, a little boost to the Liberals helps Labour by preventing the Tories from taking back some of those south-east seats - like Chris Huhne's in Eastleigh - that they need to get a majority. Too much of a boost and Labour will suffer in two ways - firstly because the Liberals will start to threaten Labour-held seats further north and secondly because the tactical Liberal votes that have kept the Tories out in some seats may switch back. While Cameron didn't do well and didn't look prime ministerial, I would expect the Conservatives to come back against the Liberals strongly as they move rapidly away from 'love-bombing' their yellow colleagues and start holding the Liberal policies up to the light a bit more. Even for Clegg, there may be a downside, as the media will start taking a long hard look at their policies and there are some that will come up wanting. Sarah Teather stood in for Charlie Kennedy on This Week last night and look stunned when Andrew Neil started challenging her hard over their debt reduction plans, where for all the Liberals' much-touted honesty, there appears to be a black hole of some £5 billion opening up as a gap between planned savings and reality.

That's the thing about playing on the same pitch as the big boys - the game gets much harder. Is Clegg ready for that scrutiny? Will this provide a sustained bounce to the Liberal Democrat cause or just an overnight wonder? Time will tell.

1 comment:

Bill Lees said...

Very nice assessment, John. Can't disagree with any of that.