2010 UK Election, Ray D'Cruz, View by election

Harvey-Smith: Clegg wins first UK leaders’ debate

Judge: Neill Harvey-Smith

Winner: Clegg

Scores: Brown 69  | Cameron 68 | Clegg 72

Cameron was unable to frame the debate as challenger versus incumbent, and therefore did not pin responsibility on Gordon Brown for his administration. This was a strategic failure, with Cameron winning battles but losing the war. He did get clear messages across on immigration, law and order and school discipline. He also expressed strong, authentic emotions about the armed forces, NHS and the work of carers. But as the debate progressed, his style morphed into the more discursive style favoured by the other two. This did not play to his strengths from the start of the debate, where he came across as the most commanding speaker.

Cameron’s job was made harder by a further two factors. Nick Clegg, who mostly referred to “you two”, chose to single out David Cameron, not Gordon Brown, for a strong attack on whether his tax and spending figures added up. Gordon Brown, when he set out his constitutional programme, fell over himself to assert that the Liberal Democrats support his ideas. These decisions meant the leader of the opposition appeared more isolated, and spent more time on the defensive, than one might have expected.

Gordon Brown was able to put forward his manifesto ideas clearly and these were treated with the same status as ideas from the other two. This was a fortunate position in which the incumbent Prime Minister should find himself. He was good at challenging David Cameron on Conservative positions and was forceful in portraying Tory economic policy as a risk. Without being strong at exciting people about Labour achievement, he did outline his policies for the future. Style is an important consideration and Gordon Brown was weaker at connecting and using anecdotes. “I met a man who” is less effective than naming the individual and sounding like you care about them. While he was unimpressive overall, he was not challenged on his record with any persistence or vigour.

Good debates require people to clash over the same specific ideas and speakers must be forced to answer questions. This debate did not have that ingredient, the closest coming when Gordon Brown said “this isn’t question time, it’s answer time” and David Cameron declined to give a straight answer to his challenge. This was a feature of the debate’s design and it is to be hoped that more leeway will be given to the candidates to cross-examine each other in future debates.

Nick Clegg’s strategy was to play the outsider. He distanced himself not just from the other candidates – “the more they attack each other, the more they seem the same” – but politics as a whole, exhorting the others to “be honest” rather than accusing them of lying directly. At a time when politics is in disrepute, this was effective. It will be interesting to see how the others deal with this approach in debates 2 and 3.

Overall, the quality of arguments deployed was not strong under pressure, with people shifting their ground under fire rather than dealing with criticism head-on. None of the candidates were natural at using anecdotes to support their points. It is important to relate to real people yet all three candidates seemed to be using their examples in a formulaic way. That is why I have given below average marks for the performance of all the leaders, including the winner.

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