The camera never lies; or at least it doesn’t when it’s an hour and a half of live television debate. The Daily Mail was nothing if not predictable in what it dredged up about Clegg, the Daily Mirror scrabbles around desperately trying to find a win for Brown, and the Telegraph was for the Tories: this much we know…plus ca change. And as for the party hacks and spin-doctors well, pass me a bucket.
But the good news is you don’t need to heed any of them, you can make up your own mind. And there is more good news: All these guys are pretty good at debating.
We should be happy that one of them will be our representative at Top Tables across the world. That is not always the case: think McCain, and especially Palin, in the USA. And if you perm any two from three you would be unlikely to lose too much sleep if a coalition was the outcome (though I am aware that a Brown/Cameron hook-up is unlikely, excepting when they are sledging Clegg on immigration.)
In this debate Brown, but more importantly Cameron, actually turned up. Clegg was as good as he was last time but to either side he had better opponents. They were more focussed, much more aggressive (assertive if you prefer), sharper and looser in the exchanges.
But they never laid a finger on Clegg, despite some fairly fierce stuff on immigration and defence. Brown and Cameron need to bring an even better game for the final debate, because Clegg has no intention of getting any worse. I’m not so sure either of them have it in the locker.
Brown, physically too pasty-faced, got off to a stumbling start in his first minutes and remains too formulaic and inflexible in the cut and thrust. Cameron was of course markedly better in every department this time, but that’s faint praise and his advisors will know it. It’s all good and fluent and measured and intelligent. And sometimes it’s passionate… but his passion is somehow too earnest, doesn’t seem real enough. Just like when he rolls up his sleeves it looks like someone’s done it for him, and maybe ironed them in place, in case they look too scruffy.
On presentational style and quality of debating Clegg still scores best of the three by a scintilla from Cameron, with Brown just behind in third: no mean feat when they were ready for him this time and he had a lot to live up to. Like it or not, Clegg continues to impress.
On knowledge of subject and mastery of their briefs don’t be fooled by the press on the left saying that Brown is the only one talking proper policy sense, or on the right saying Cameron has better content and ideas. It’s nonsense. That’s not to say that Brown is not strong here, or that Cameron has no good ideas (but The Big Society needs some serious explanation).
Clegg is far from being simply all mouth, gold tie and trousers. Bad presentation does not necessarily mean you are clever, as Groucho Marx said, “He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.”
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