…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.