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Cameron’s big chance

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Opinion by Ray D’Cruz

Prime Minister David Cameron

Prime Minister David Cameron

The odds appear stacked against Prime Minister David Cameron for Thursday’s seven-way televised leaders’ debate.

One incumbent versus six challengers sounds ugly. The likely dynamic will be five leaders falling over themselves to attack and goad the Prime Minister. The sixth leader, Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg will walk a finer line as he reconciles his role in the Coalition with his repudiation of the Conservative agenda.

Mr Cameron will be attacked from the left by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. From the right he’ll be hunted by the UKIP. And the SNP and Plaid Cymru will criticise him from the nationalist centre.

But it’s not as bleak as it sounds. This dynamic gives Mr Cameron a chance to achieve a great strategic outcome: to occupy the sensible middle ground, where elections are won.

To gain this middle ground in the debate, Mr Cameron needs to do four things.

Firstly, he needs to explicitly claim the middle ground. He needs to do this repeatedly, in different ways and with different words. But his underlying message will be the same: we are best placed to lead this diverse nation. In a debate that is likely to be very messy, underlying messages will be vital.

Second, he needs to adopt a manner that is consistent with staking out the middle ground. That means being calm in the storm of a seven-way debate, but also energised and decisive so his key messages can be clearly discerned amidst the maelstrom.

Being calm does not mean appearing disinterested. He can ill-afford to appear as disengaged as he did in the first and second debates of 2010, where as front-runner he was determined to avoid the fracas. In doing so he left the door open for Mr Clegg to take the middle ground, and he did. So: energised, decisive and calm.

Third, Mr Cameron needs to speak efficiently. Incumbents have an onerous, threefold task: to defend a record, to attack opponents and to outline a new plan (opponents just have to attack and provide an alternative).

The ITV debate’s two-hour format will allow opening statements, and then individual questions to be debated over 17-18 minutes. Divided by seven speakers, Mr Cameron will have to manage these three tasks in two-minute bursts. Carefully enumerated points, succinct explanations and brief examples will be the order of the day if he is to manage time.

Finally, Mr Cameron needs to assert to the moderator his right to reply when attacked, particularly when personally attacked. If he can do this successfully, he should enjoy more speaking time than his opponents, and could possibly be perceived to win the debate on that basis alone.

This debate represents a great opportunity for Mr Cameron, but it’s not clear from his pre-debate posturing that he sees it this way. There is a prevailing view that these debates favour the challenger. But with the polls so close I am not sure this view holds.

Being attacked on all fronts need not be the disaster that many predict for the reasons outlined above. Indeed, Mr Cameron has probably sought advice from his Canadian counterpart, Stephen Harper. Twice as Conservative incumbent (2008 and 2011) Mr Harper has faced-off against vociferous opponents in multi-party debates, and twice he has won.

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