Leaders' debate more about impressions than policies

By Jill Segger
April 15, 2010

One down and two to go. Tonight's groundbreaking debate between the three main party leaders was always going to be more about impressions than about policy. None of the three said anything which we did not already know. If there were any surprises, it was that Gordon Brown did rather better than expected and David Cameron did considerably worse.

It is hardly surprising that Nick Clegg emerged as the 'winner'. His stance of “a plague on both your houses” is attractive to an electorate disillusioned by the two main parties but it is likely to have diminishing returns as the series continues. Nonetheless, the Lib Dem leader was relaxed and personable. His manner was perhaps a little too insouciant – standing with one hand in your pocket on a formal occasion is perhaps not the best look – but he came over as stylish, unforced and attractive. Apart from the occasion when both the other participants ganged up on him over Trident, he seemed to get away unchallenged on most of what he had to say.

Gordon Brown was far more relaxed than I had expected. He was substantial, authoritative on policy detail and showed none of the tendency towards the angry responses which many expected and which would have done him considerable harm, or to the nerdy recitation of strings of figures which would have switched off his listeners. He even managed to get in the first joke – and visibly relaxed at the small ripple of laughter which was heard from the strictly controlled audience.

As David Cameron is generally seen as a far more popular political figure than Gordon Brown, and is a man who generally displays an easy, media-friendly image, his stiffness and tendency to look petulant was a surprise. His persistent reversion to the NI increase - “the tax on jobs” - as an answer to a diverse range of issues became borderline ridiculous and his inability to respond to Brown's challenge on whether the Conservatives would match Labour's pledge to protect spending on health, education and policing during the period of deficit reduction, was perhaps the most telling moment of the whole debate. But he is normally a good communicator and will no doubt come back better rehearsed on the next occasion.

All three men had their predictable and carefully rehearsed tropes and delivered them with the confidence that was to be expected. None of them indulged in trading insults and though there was some real debate, the moments of pressure which could possibly have made it more sparky were generally cut short by the obviously nervous chairing of Alastair Stewart whose barked interventions and hectic body language became slightly irritating.

The fact that the audience were under instructions to show no response to what they heard, meant that the politicians had none of the usual feedback on which they would normally fashion their responses. That probably added to the difficulty of pitching their answers and statements. It will have done them no harm to be deprived of the obvious satisfaction of playing to the gallery.

No one made a damaging gaffe; no one landed a knock-out blow. The Lib Dems had their first opportunity to be part of a three-way debate and Nick Clegg made the most of a win-win situation. Despite Clegg's jibe that “the more they attack each other, the more they seem the same”, real differences between the parties emerged, some expectations will have been confounded and despite the highly controlled format, this seemed a genuinely significant political and democratic occasion.

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