Apparently there was…

…some sort of debate last night. Three chaps, talking about the future of the country. Wearing handy colour coded ties?

As far as I can tell, the coverage ration seems to be 80% Who won/body language/expectations/ties/Handshaking/Polls/Worm graphs with the remaining 20% reserved for the somewhat tedious subject of what the candidates actually said. (If you want to read for yourself, there’s a transcript here.)

So in an effort to redress the balance here are my biggest policy moments for the night

1. Tax and Spend –  Cameron appeared to have two debating strategies- the “Job Tax’ and personal anecdote. Both seemed to fall flat. I thought the most revealing moment of the debate was when after repeatedly avoiding the Prime Minister’s challenge to admit there would be cuts to Education and the Police, once the debate turned to the NHS, he made great play of the fact their NHS would get a special exception from painful cuts elsewhere.  Which proved Gordon Brown’s point.

Here’s what Cameron said “we made a special exception of the NHS and said yes,  there are going to have to be difficult financial decisions  elsewhere, but we think that the NHS budget should grow in  real terms” Personally, I think pressure on that one line is vital. What difficult financial decision will there have to be elsewhere? What does that mean for the police and schools?

2. You need some facts. Gordon Brown’s best answer came on the NHS. Specific policy pledges, on Cancer, on waiting times, on change to local services, felt attainable and realistic, because of the detail. Brown had a series of pledges, and they hit their targets. Talking micro-policy can be effective, if backed up with data.

In contrast, whenever any of them sailed off on the good ship Anecdote, it felt woolly and patronising. Cameron did this the most, and oddly, it felt frustrating. Even on waste, Camerons facts were from the Clarkson/Littlejohn school of “youcuddntmakeitup”, which while it might poll well, also indicated a gap in serious content. Depth matters.

3.What happened to Free schools, police commisioners and local devolution? The dog that didn’t bark in the night was the Conserative policy agenda. Whether it was Free schools, police reform, or “mutualising” the NHS and other services, the Tory policy programme didn’t rate a mention from David Cameron. This really surprised me – even on Schooling David Cameron focused on populist stalwarts like paperwork and discipline in schools, and didn’t mention at all his bigger plans for public services. The David Cameron who spoke on Tuesday had a policy agenda for public services. The one who turned on Thursday didn’t. Why?  Even on a tactical level it was a mistake, as it meant Cameron looked like a man without a plan.

4. Afghanistan. The exchanges here were much more mature and sensible than in the House of Commons at PMQs. While Cameron attacked the government over helicopters, he was much more measured than he usually is on the subject. As a result, we ended up having what I thought was a fairly enlightening debate about the challenges in Afghanistan. Each of the three o them appeared to realise that should they be in office, they would still face significant challenges there, and didn’t want to grand stand. In a strange sort of way, this was the most heartening moment of the night.

5. China – Cameron lumping China with Iran as a nation we need to concerned about when it comes to Nukes appeared to be the biggest gafe of the night, but you know what, I think he was right on this, and if it was a gaffe, it was the tedious sort that involves something uncomfortably true.

The New Trident will be around in 20-30 years time. At that point there’s no doubt that China will be a very different Society. The Chinese Communists have retained power by a mixture of repressing free speech but permitting the free market. Will this remain the case in the future? No. We don’t know whether China will transition to a stable democracy, whether a future recession would destroy the compact between state and society, or how China will react to a host of foreign policy challenges (North Korea, Taiwan, Pakistan). Saying we need to consider these factors isn’t a Gaffe, it’s the truth.

Now for the Trivia.

1. What happened to Cameron’s soundbites and catchphrases? I was planning a drinking game based on “The Big Society” and The great ignored”.  I stayed teetotal. Nor did we learn that there is such a thing as society, but that it’s not the same as the state. I think “the Big society’s” older brother “the bigger society” made a couple of appearances, but the great ignored stayed ignored. Wonder why?

2. This is not America. Hymns and paens to the great British spirit sound stupid and patronising and false.

3. The plural of anecdote is not data. Someone really need to say this to David Cameron. Preferably Gordon Brown.

4. David Cameron is going to have to blow Nick Clegg’s head off. In Richard Ben Cramer’s magnificent “What it Takes”, a description of the 1988 presidential race, there is a moment where Sen Paul Simon is gaining ground ahead by running to the left of the leading candidates. Knowing that Simon could never win the Presidency, but feeling threatened by his growing popularity, Dick Gephardt proceeds to destroy him in a debate, with a remarkably, focussed and vicious attack on his policy. Questioned about it afterwards, Gephardt says. “well, Someone had to blow his head off”*

Yesterday, Clegg did well because he was able to run unchallenged as both the outsider and as “change”. Thas is dangerous for Cameron. He cannot allow Nick Clegg to stand for change, and paint him as part of a cosy consensus.  He has to find a way of blowing Nick Clegg’s head off.

*I think it was Gephardt. I don’t have te book with me.

20 Responses to “Apparently there was…”

  1. newmania

    This is a good post I really like the conversational way you engage without having to be cleverer than everyone else . Balls , Ed Milliband and other New Labour smarty pantsoids could learn much from your style

    I thought Brown did quite well I found him likeably awkward and old fashioned but more obviously the past than ever . I know you agree, and I know you would have loved to see Miliband , and not Ed , up there challenging .

    What yanks my chain is shagger Clegg offering £15 billion of tax cuts , offering to cut the deficit 100% with cuts , and telling everyone else they should be honest .
    He claimed his generous plans were not fiction because he would stop high earner loop holes .

    Idiotic! Stopping avoidance is a process not a windfall and if Brown for one second thought it was possible he would have done it .( Better probably )

    It drives me nuts the way they occupy every position simultaneously whilst telling everyone else they are conniving dishonest and …oooer “Political” .

    Liberals …….grrrrrrrrrrrr

    • Quinn

      Well I never! A reasoned comment with punctuation more-or-less in all the right places from Newmania! This election campaign is turning up all sorts of surprises.

  2. bert

    My verdict –

    Format – worked better than I thought it would, and it did actually flow quite smoothly at times. All three went overtime in their speeches, though Cameron least. What on earth are those 70-odd rules? Bizarre.

    Length of debate – too long by quite a margin. An hour and ten minutes would have been perfect – I found myself dropping off in the final 20 minutes.

    The Leaders –

    Brown – 2/10 – in my view, a total car crash. His constant shouting, scowling, his rubbing up to Clegg, his terrible jokes, his petty jibes about Ashcroft (thanks, Alastair), his meaningless stats – and his profound dishonesty. Confirmed everything I already knew – a desperately unattractive figure hanging on by his bloodied finger nails. Dead man walking.

    Cameron – 6/10 – disappointing for me. Good start and great ending, but he was overall too passive, and he let Brown off the hook all night long. Cameron’s being brainwashed by his advisers – he does not need them! Must improve dramatically in the next two – and I strongly believe he will.

    Clegg – 8/10 – I have to admit I was wrong about Clegg, at least on last night’s performance. He got it right – his body language, his directness, his clarity. Couple of caveats, though – Clegg speaks with the freedom of a man who knows he will never be PM – and he uses a plague on both your houses very well. New Kid on the Block novelty won’t last long, Nick.

    Overall verdict – an interesting, if hugely over-hyped spectacle. Will it affect the outcome of the election – in my view, no. In other words, still a Tory majority – with maybe more seats if the Lib Dem vote shores up in Lab/Con marginals. :)

    **STOP PRESS**

    Latest ComRes poll – look away, Hopi – no, really – look away –

    Con – 36%
    Lib Dem – 35%
    Lab – 24%

    that’s roughly a 200 seat loss for Labour at an election!


    • hopisen

      Bert, I’m actually really annoyed about this poll, it’s a non-weighted poll of those who watched the debate.

      In other words. It’s a poll of c 20% of people, and not weighted or representative. Even if it had shown a Labour surge, it would be rubbish to describe this as a voting intention poll, like normal ones.

      The fact that it’ll get covered as if it was a “real” poll is stupid.

      Actually, with this, the Sky wierdness, and the completey different methodologies, I think the polling companies should be really ashamed of their work last night.

      • newmania

        I`m sure that’s right Hopi but the Liberals in ten years have gone from being a 10/11% joke to a 20% Party , look back to 97 . If they nosed ahead it could be a nudge /paradigm shift ( insert vacuous wordage to taste ).
        For me , thinking about that debate later , what sticks in my mind is that Brown looked old , his personalised public Services is all the old stuff .
        So you have a living relic as a leader and not Milliband. You have a back to basics anti Tory/ Ashcroft and Balls campaign and not a reinvention .Its been working too but there is terrible danger

        Suppose the anti Tory vote goes to Clegg ? The SDP got much close than people think , it could easily happen

        The only good thing would be the fun to be had watching Clegg back off PR at 100 miles an hour…

      • bert

        It’s been revised now anyway – which I knew it would. It’s pure fantasy to think the Lab Dems would rise 14% on a properly weighted poll.

        re-weighted figures –

        Con – 36
        Lab Dem – 24
        Lab – 27

        Still dire figures for Labour, though, and I question why Labour has been weighted 3 upwards, and the Tories stay the same.

        However you cut these figures, Hopi, it’s over for Labour. Ask Nick, Hopi – I think he agrees with me!

  3. liammurray71

    Cameron missed the obvious comeback line when Brown was pressing for commitments on education & police spending:

    “No Gordon, I won’t make that committment because I don’t think people in this audience or at home believe the ‘contemplation room’ for DCSF or new curtains for their office is entirely necessary. I don’t think they support the 7% pay rise for senior managers, I don’t think they support the need for a 600 page national curriculum when Sweden can get by on 16, I don’t think they support the 4,000 pages of info central bureaucrats send teachers every year or the £300m spend on educational quangos.

    Look, we politicians can make commitments to outcomes or we can make commitments to inputs. The Prime Minister likes the latter because because you sign the cheque – with other people’s money of course – and then get to walk away. You can trot out statistics about investment in early years care and convieniently ignore the stats that show child poverty has stalled if not worsened. You can boast about teacher numbers and class sizes and ignore the fact that we’ve slipped back in the literacy leagues. You can talk about police numbers and ignore the fact the peoples fear of crime and disorder has went through the roof.

    So no, Gordon, I won’t make some spurious pledge aimed at securing a neat headline for you. I’m committed to improving things and that doesn’t always mean spending more money on them – if after 13 years in office you still haven’t grasped that insight then we really are in trouble.”

    Cue applause…. if it’d been allowed.

    • hopisen

      He can’t do that, because then he can’t claim his decision to protect te NHS was a good one. If that argument was true, why say NHS is so important it gets an exception?

  4. liammurray71

    Because the NHS doesn’t have comparable levels of waste or secondary/tertiary spending.

    That would be the tactical explanation if challenged anyway. It’s nonsense of course – I have family that work in the NHS (life-long Labour family at that) who moan on a regular basis about the appalling waste and misuse of funds in health. It’s just that Cameron has to make that pledge because in it’s absence the Labour campaign would slaughter him otherwise.

    Interesting that your only objection to my imagined response was that it didn’t square with other aspects of Tory strategy rather than the central charge – namely savings can clearly be made without impact frontline services or economic growth.

    Was Cameron right that the extent of his 2010/11 savings is only £1 in every £100 the government spends? If he was that’s a powerful argument…

    • hopisen

      it’s not my only objection. I was just trying to explain why Cameron can’t do what you say. It would sound stupid from him.

      The waste argument is silly for a whole different set of reason (it’s over sold, can’t be done as simply as all that, and all other the reasons David Cameron gave before he changed his mind)

      • liammurray71

        I’m not sure what’s stupid about that? Protecting NHS but committed to looking for savings in education and policing…

        And I liked Cameron’s efforts to turn this on it’s head because it’s not a waste argument really – are you really saying that in every £100 the government spends >£99 is essential for frontline services and avaoiding a double-dip? That’s just not a credible position Hopi…

  5. Alan Ji

    I thought the chair of the debate, Alastair Stewart, did very well.

  6. Charlie

    The Tax and Spend policies of the Lib Dems make Gordon look positively restrained.

    The sooner someone looks into and highlights Lib Dem plans for Income Tax and National Insurance, the sooner their newly discovered support will evaporate.

  7. Arnie Pie

    For all Cameron’s anecdotes, the idea that you can fund a deficit reduction programme, a few hefty tax cuts AND improvements in the funding of frontline services doesn’t stack up.

    Sure there are examples of waste in the public sector. But I suspect that even if you pared every Whitehall department to the bone – not only stopping the sort of spending that gets the Mail frothing, but going to the extent of banning replacement pencils until they’re sharpened right down to the rubber – you wouldn’t find that much money. You’d find some, but not enough to achieve all of the Tories’ aims.

    Plus, there are some quoted examples of “waste” where there are unintended consequences. You could cut the number of administrators in the NHS and the police by a huge number – but there is a base amount of admin that needs to be done in any organization, particularly large ones where we expect a certain level of standards and accountability. So there’s a level at which cutting admin officers results in nurses and policemen having to do things like arrange catering contracts and deal with stationery procurement; or where a lot of the checks which are demanded every time there’s a public sector scandal go to pot; or, worse still, both.

    All of this, on top of the fact that identifying waste has a cost (if you do it properly).

    I would have more respect if the Tories had commissioned extensive research into the running of public sector organizations, gave solid examples of needless or wasteful processes, and totted up the results. But they don’t – they lurch from tabloid headline to lazy anecdote. I just hope that, if they win, they govern with a degree more maturity and consideration than they show when campaigning.

  8. media scum

    Two random thoughts. Who told Alistair Stewart to repeat mantras about Wales, Scotland and Ulster every 15 minutes or so ? It just sounded a wee bit patronising.

    Secondly, i was struck by Clegg’s view of the Trident Programme as some kind of universal cornucopia for every pet spending project he desires. Someone should gently take him by the hand and show him the big sheds in Barrow where the things are being built and where the money has already been committed………..

  9. James

    I think its quite depressing that so many people on this feel that spending almost £100billion on Trident renewal is a good idea or necessary. How can a “cold war weapon” as Clegg rightfully put it, be the right weapon of today?

  10. Olly

    I agree with your analysis Hopi. Although I think Brown would also do well to point out the flaws in Lib-Dem policy.

    Brown pulled up Cameron for taking 6billion out of the Economy and didn’t pull up Clegg for taking 17billion+unspecified “honest” reduction figure.

    A lot of the time his rhetoric also drifted to the right of the other two (NHS spending for example).

  11. Dave Lewis

    I agree that the part of the debate about Afghanistan showed a maturity of thinking that we have not usually seen during discussion on this war. As you say, Hopi, Afghanistan will be a massive challenge for the next government which can’t be downplayed, and I think all the party leaders realised that gung-ho sloganeering and simplifying on this issue would not play well.

    One of the reasons Afghanistan is such a problem is, of course, the huge cost of waging war. This is not helped by the fact that the defence equipment budget is £35 billion over-committed at a time when deep cuts in public spending are required.

    In this context, Nick Clegg’s comments questioning the need for Trident replacement make a lot of sense. It is pointless to spend a huge sum of money addressing a vague, uncertain threat which may or may not materialise sometime in the distant future whilst neglecting current security needs.

    The public have little appetite for new nuclear weapons and neither, it seems, do the armed forces, so Clegg look like he’s onto a winner on this issue.

    By the way, it’s not correct to say that the government has already committed to replacing Trident. Labour has always said that a final decision has yet to be made, and will take place sometime in the future of the next Parliament when the replacement project reaches ‘Main Gate’ stage. It’s true that a lot of money is currently being spent on feasibility work (a third of a million each day – imagine how useful that would be if we spent it on the Afghanistan effort instead), but the work taking place in the Barrow shipyards is on new Astute class submarines – a totally different project. So a future government would easily be able to cancel Trident replacement without too much money having been wasted.


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