Friday, 16 April 2010

No volcanic eruption in Manchester then

It was a bit like watching PMQs/FMQs. Eager anticipation, but ten minutes in and my mind is wandering elsewhere and I'm reaching for the remote. So it was with last night's party leaders' debate, the only difference being that I managed to stay fairly alert for the first half hour or so.

Thus it all seemed like a rearranged PMQs, albeit a bit more civilised, with less audience participation and with the politicians on an equal footing. And while it was perhaps more illuminating than the weekly House of Commons joust, in essence it told politicos little that they didn't know already, although it might have helped the undecided and more disinterested to come to some conclusion regarding exercising their prerogative in three weeks' time.

Of course, as has already been repeated almost ad nauseum there were no killer lines, major gaffes or corset-adjusting gags. Equally, most objective opinion seems to have decreed Nick Clegg the winner, which is no doubt disappointing to David Cameron fans, but the thumbs down to Gordon Brown was hardly unexpected. Indeed, the relatively unknown Clegg exploited his underdog role well, and benefited from public antipathy to politics as standing apart from the Labour scunner factor and residual mistrust of the Tories.

And with all three adept at the usual copious helpings of motherhood and apple pie, style was likely to be just as important as substance. Clegg's image doesn't seem to suffer from his slightly wimpish delivery, Cameron was uncombative and looked dour - perhaps overdoing the gravitas-in-waiting - while ironically Brown seemed to be the only one really smiling, and it didn't even look entirely contrived, although he did give the impression of having taken some happy pills which gradually lost effect as the debate proceeded.

No especially excruciating moments either, but Gordon Brown's determination to get his eminently predictable Lord Ashcroft mention in made it look particularly contrived. Meanwhile, Nick Clegg's cloying peroration reference to the list of the audience interrogators by their first names - consolidating what he'd done when responding to each individual - looked too smarmy and over familiar, like when the bank teller asks: "Can I interest you in life insurance today, Stuart?"* As for David Cameron's worst moment, perhaps I wasn't paying attention at the time.

Of course, notwithstanding his decisive victory last night, Nick Clegg won't be the next prime minister, even if he again trounces the others in the remaining two contests. And the debates seem unlikely to change actual voting intentions significantly.

But if they do, the crucial question is, who benefits? Do the Lib Dems take votes from the Conservatives, thus increasing the likelihood of a hung parliament, or do they come from Labour, to that extent helping the Tories?

However, debating moment of the day was at Holyrood rather than Manchester, with Alex Salmond prefacing his FMQs performance with a statement about a "volcanic eruption", and without the slightest hint of irony. The Manchester debate didn't quite reach the same Richter scale heights, but the political fault lines were nonetheless highlighted.**

*Like when the Tesco checkout operator asks: "Would you like some help with your packing today, sir." "Er, do I look so pathologically lazy that I need help to pack a pint of milk and a newspaper while there's a dozen people in the queue? And by specifically referring to 'today' does this mean you think that I'm inconsistent about these things?" Actually, I don't really say that, but I have been cheeky enough to reply in the negative but to add that I'll give them a shout if I can't manage.

**OK, technically it's a mixed metaphor!

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