12 April 2010

Debate Prep

In which I take a look at what the performers in the upcoming Prime Ministerial Debates need to do to get the edge.

Brown: Be more confrontational

This one sounds counter-intuitive, even after I explain that I don't mean 'aggressive'. But I'm not suggesting that he be confrontational towards the other candidates, but towards the issues. When someone heckles Gordon Brown, he just sweeps past them - he can surely hear them, but he's rather good at pretending that he doesn't. When someone asks him a question he doesn't like, he ignores it. When someone presents him with a fact, a truth, a reality that isn't convenient to him, he completely dismisses it no matter how ridiculous it makes him look (I recall how David Cameron brought up Wendy Alexander's infamous, "Bring It On" moment, and Cameron quoted verbatim, only for Brown to reply "that was not what she said" despite the fact that Cameron was quoting the transcript).

So Gordon, if you're reading this, when a question comes, answer it. When a point is made, respond to it. When a fact is brought up, address it. Don't avoid it. Don't sidestep it. Don't ignore it. And only deny it if it's patently untrue. You'll gain respect by being honest (let's face it, Blair's masochism strategy worked to an extent), and the papers will pan you more if you brush anything uncomfortable aside than if you try to tackle it.

After all, this is a debate: that means engaging with the other side's points.

Cameron: Think on your feet

For someone who likes to pace around the stage without notes, David Cameron is a highly programmable speaker. His Conference performances don't show a man who's speaking from the heart and doesn't need notes, but a man with a good memory, who can recite lines on cue. One may as well stick a parrot in front of the ITV cameras. The downfall comes when everything's committed to memory, Cameron has learned what points and lines he wants to get in and when, but the argument moves in an unexpected fashion or the other side's response was not what he planned (rather like how Paul Le Guen appeared to plan how the opposition team would play, then couldn't understand how Falkirk wouldn't stick to that plan and would win 1-0), and he's been caught cold like this a few times.

So he should try a more free-form approach. OK, the lines might be less polished and there may even be the odd 'Um' and 'Ah' in there but that's not as bad a mess-up as trying to steer a debate back to territory it left a while ago, or trying to make a point that's already been shot to pieces by the other side. One error like that, where his over-preparedness makes him look semi-detached from the debate, and it's an open goal for Brown and Clegg.

Again, this is a debate, go with the flow.

Clegg: Be less emotional

Again, this may seem counter-intuitive, but bear with me. Remember last week's PMQs, where Nick Clegg opened with that disdainful "He and he...", and it sounded like a cross between a hissy fit, and an exasperated Eric Morecambe introducing Ernie Wise and Andre Previn's interpretation of Greig's Piano Concerto for the fifth or sixth time (the point at which he gave up naming them and exclaimed, "With him and him!". Now, it may well be that it's a matter that genuinely frustrates Clegg, but the truth is he doesn't seem to render them in a natural way. Perhaps because, at times, it looks like he's getting narky about procedure rather than policy. But whatever the reason, his anger, however genuine it may actually be, appears contrived, synthetic. So, don't do anger!

Besides, there'll be plenty of heat exchanged between the other two, so there's scope for Clegg to be the Voice of Reason, leaving the playground to the children and actually making serious points. That'll set him out as being different in a good way, rather than just appearing to be a crap actor.

The others: Better off out of it?

Imagine. It's 10:01 on Thursday night. The debate was inconclusive. No one was the winner. The losers were the unfortunate viewers who did their best to stay tuned in to the end but ended up watching the commercials and making a brew during the programme instead of the other way around. The bulk of the debate centred around England-only issues (or even issues that might be reserved but seem to matter more in England than in Scotland, or perhaps where the perspective is different in any case) and the three candidates tore into each other without actually discussing relevant points.

It's possible that these debates might put people off all three parties, especially as Nick Clegg's "the other two are the same, we are different" line can't be sustained in the programme. The minute the other parties disagree - which they will - his line about them being the same is blown out of the water. The minute he agrees with either Brown or Cameron - and he will have to on something sooner or later - his line about the LibDems being different is undermined. And if he just disagrees with everything anyone else, he'll look like a complete muppet. Plus which, if the other two parties do agree on something, his choice is to either join the grey, cosy consensus, or be the one who breaks that consensus and creates division. The "Labservative" line will look increasingly shaky come Friday morning and advantage will fall to a party that wasn't on the platform. And one party in particular - the SNP, of course - will have a spot on BBC Scotland which will provide a window to go through all the material gathered on the Thursday night debates.

Basically, if this debate turns out to be a damp squib, if neither leader satisfies people's expectations, if there's no clear winner or loser, that generates a massive opportunity for the SNP, for Plaid and for the Greens - even for UKIP in Tory areas.

If Brown, Cameron and Clegg can't conquer their demons, they can't conquer each other. If they can't conquer each other, they can't capture votes. And if they can't capture votes, there are others who can.

By the end of April, they may all rue these debates.


Jeanne Tomlin said...

Unfortunately, your "the SNP is better off out of it" assumes everyone else blowing all their lines--not likely. That Salmond has a party broadcast immediately before might ameliorate some of the damage, but I'm not sure I would count on it.

It will take tremendous effort on the part of the SNP and the PC to overcome this disadvantage and their serious shortage of cash isn't going to help.

Salmond is making the bast of the SNP underdog, outsider status. What else can he do? But this is going to be one rough election. I hope you're right. I really do.

Will said...

I see what you're saying, Jeanne, and I take the point that if one or more of the speakers has a good night then the ones who aren't on the platform are in trouble...

That said, for tonight's debate, it's a big 'if' and my hunch is we'll see the oratorical equivalent of a dire 0-0: all sides unwilling to leave themselves vulnerable, and so playing cautiously. Remember that this is, in effect a new experience for everyone: the media, the audience and especially Brown, Cameron and Clegg. And of course, it's that factor that puts the focus on it.

However, I think the key might be the second debate, on Sky next week. They'll be used to the format, and it'll be a chance to get some momentum in for the biggie the week after. Number 2 is what they need and I don't think the SNP have the PEB beforehand, either...