15 April 2010

Understimating Gordon Brown part 266

Quite a bizarre article here from Polly Toynbee whom I normally agree with pretty much 100%.

Under the eye-catching but dubious headline "tune in for Gordon Brown's car crash", Polly, who like many of us has oscillated over the last few years between thinking Gordon is the best thing since sliced bread and wanting him to resign immediately, says:

If even Tony Blair, the great political performer of the age, didn't fancy his chances against William Hague or Michael Howard, why is Gordon Brown putting himself up against Cameron, who has many of Blair's thespian skills? If your lurcher has a limp, would you put him in the dog race? And it's not once, it's three times. Why?

The main reason we haven't had these debates before is that we've never had a situation where both main party leaders wanted them to happen before. Normally what happens is that there is a clear favourite (Tony Blair in the last three elections) and he had nothing to gain by saying yes to a debate. In 1997 his refusal at least led to some classic comedy in the shape of the infamous "Tory chicken incident" where the guy hired by the Tories to follow Blair around in a chicken suit was ambushed by a rival chicken with a detachable head (meant to symbolise the state that the Tories were in by that stage) hired by the Daily Mirror.

This time round, Brown was well behind vs Cameron in polling at the time these negotiations were taking place, so it was a combination of thinking "I've nothing to lose" and also his feeling that the electorate would come round if only they'd look at the policies and stop focusing on soundbites.

Meanwhile, Dave Cameron presumably thought Brown was such a liability that the more the UK public see of him, the better.

So the interests of the two parties coincided. It's as simple as that.

While obviously Brown has problems getting his argument across to the public, I don't agree with Polly that these debates are a liability. The fact that everyone expects him to be crap means that even if he's just OK, it's a victory, of sorts. As long as he can avoid being totally crap, it's worth doing. Also, when pressed on policy, Cameron has looked crap on several occasions, most recently in the Gay Times interview. Tony Blair he ain't.

The person who will probably gain most from these debates is Nick Clegg. He gets prime-time exposure on a equal footing with the two main party leaders - extremely valuable. Personally I'd argue that at least one of the debates should have opened up to minor parties - the Greens, UKIP and the BNP - and we should also have had a debate in Scotland with the SNP and the Scottish Socialists and in Wales with Plaid Cymru.

The format will be anodyne - no cheering, clapping, booing or follow-up questions. Why the hell we couldn't have had a special edition of Question Time - tried and tested, and found to work well for 30 years - is beyond me. But the antiseptic nature of proceedings will probably suit Brown, who is the most gimmick-free candidate.

I doubt these debates will swing public opinion more than 1% either way - maybe a bit more towards the Lib Dems if Clegg does well. But with many of the polls now f***ing close (e.g. 3% gap on Populus for the Times yesterday - matching my prediction exactly), 1% could make a huge difference to the final result. Anyway, I'll be watching closely.

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