The Futility Monster

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Posts Tagged ‘Prime Ministerial Debates’

The Third Election Debate: Wordled And Numbered

Posted by The Futility Monster on April 30, 2010 @ 10:25

Time for our final instalment of fun – with the third debate transcript this time. Before I begin, if you’re really into this stuff, you might want to look at my equivalent post from the first debate, and the second debate, for comparative purposes.

After calling this debate for Cameron last night, that impression has only been confirmed by the little exercise that follows. Executive summary: Cameron was less verbose, and hence had to be slower, more dignified… more prime ministerial.

Here go the Wordles…

Gordon Brown

Nick Clegg

David Cameron

I’ve been doing this long enough now to know that these guys are pretty robotic when it comes to the language they use. Cameron’s message is all about “people” – and it has featured prominently in all three of his Wordles. His other favourite word appears to be “need” – in the sense that “we need” to do X, or we need noun. It’s typical opposition talk: highlighting what he would do differently.

He also continues his trend for the word “actually” – an everyday word we all use – and in this final debate took the time to hammer on the word “government”, something he hadn’t previously done to this extent. Getting home his message about the end of this government and its failure, I suspect.

Nick Clegg’s Wordles, unlike David Cameron’s however, show more of an evolution across the series. Nick’s favourite word across the three was “think”, which seemed to work well in the first debate, but perhaps it got tired in the subsequent two. But in this debate, his “think” was outshone by “people”. Not good at all, especially as it’s clearly what Cameron was already doing. In fact, as the debates have progressed, Nick’s use of “think” declined as his use of “people” increased. It meant he lost his distinctiveness.

Nick’s keenness for talking about tax in this debate cannot have been an accident. While the questions gave him the opportunity, and there was much talk about “tax credits”, it was clearly designed to get the message through on the £10,000 personal allowance. That is sensible, as it is a well received policy, and if it has stuck in some viewers minds, perhaps it may be his saving grace from a disappointing performance.

Nick has also let himself down by getting too stuck in. It was illustrated in his “yes or no?” exchange with David Cameron on immigration. The electorate don’t like it. It smacked of more of the same. I highlighted this last time:

  • Debate 1 : “David” – 5 times; “Gordon” – 5 times
  • Debate 2: “David” – 14 times; “Gordon” – 18 times
  • Debate 3: “David” – 16 times; “Gordon” –  14 times

His excuse may be that he was largely ignored in the first debate. But most of it is in his hands. He actively chose to challenge the others. Time and time again, those wiggly lines show it invariably reflects badly on the attacker.

As for Gordon Brown, his decision to attack David Cameron is reflected in the Wordle by the prominence of it. He referred to “David” 31 times and “Nick” just 11. A remarkable reversal from the first debate, where he referred to them equally (11 times), and, as we all know, most of those referrals to Nick were positive. Again, this must be deliberate.

Gordon Brown went negative on everyone yesterday. “risk” “recovery” “inheritance” “cut”… the messaging was clear and coherent. Either his training worked, or the distraction of yesterday led to a slightly less well-prepared Gordon Brown, who went back to good old Labour instincts: attack the Tories for being the party of the rich. He was on message, but it just doesn’t seem to capture the electorate’s imagination. Like I said, negativity doesn’t really work. Or in this case, maybe it’s because of the messenger…

Moving on…

Third Debate: Vital Statistics
Gordon Brown David Cameron Nick Clegg
Words 5216 5087 5350
Sentences 256 295 283
Words per sentence 20.3 17.2 18.9
Flesch Reading Ease 60.8 68.7 67.5
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 9.8 7.9 8.5

Out of the three debate’s statistics, this one is the most interesting. The main reason is that Nick Clegg showed that old habits die hard. Too many words. Too much waffle. When you consider that they all must have roughly got the same time to speak, to chuck in an extra 300 words over Cameron must mean Nick Clegg spoke faster.

And yet, if you put it into the context of the other two debates, this was the least Nick Clegg spoke (1: 5476; 2: 5940). The problem is that it doesn’t matter in absolute terms. It’s only the comparison on the night between the three. And I did get the impression that Nick wasn’t as disciplined, and as focused as he had been in the previous two. That is borne out by the numbers.

David Cameron, instead, shows how he has steadily grasped the debate format. Shorter sentences – the shortest by far out of all nine transcripts (3 each per debate, of course) – and always speaking at an easier to understand level.

Especially in contrast to Gordon Brown. His longer sentences and penchant for multi-syllabic words like “inheritance”, “Conservatives” and “manufacturing” are responsible for nearly getting a 10 in the grade level, by far the highest out of all the nine transcripts, and a big rise on last week. Maybe that’s why despite his punchier performance, he lost people in the detail. But that’s Gordon Brown all over: a details man in a big picture world.

There’s so much more that could be done with these numbers, but that’s me for the day. I could draw some graphs comparing all these numbers side by side across the three debates, but why bother? No one’s reading anyway.

Instead, as per tradition, we finish with the moderator’s Wordle. Mr David Dimbleby:

David Dimbleby

Just look at that supreme example of BBC impartiality. Almost every name identical size. Perfect.


Please note my transcripts for each individual are cleaned up, no paragraphs, no line breaks, and no markers for where one part of the debate conversation began or ended. That’s the most useful form for textual analysis, and I share them with you above.

If you do anything else funky with this stuff, please place a link to it in the comments. I’d love to read it.


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The Third Debate Post-Mortem

Posted by The Futility Monster on April 29, 2010 @ 23:08

Cameron holding court...

The news is in, and it’s not good.

I thought Nick Clegg had a very strong first third of the debate. He got stuck in, he stood ahead of the other two, and didn’t get bogged down in the partisan bickering. He addressed the questioner. He looked at the camera too. A perfect balance.

Then it all seemed to go wrong.

Make no mistake, Clegg did not slip up during this debate. He was fairly strong, and especially so when the second question about direct taxes was such a gift to him. And I absolutely admire his bold, principled, and utterly correct, stance on the immigrant amnesty.

After that though, it didn’t work so well. His closing statement in particular was very poor. Filled with waffle and an incoherent narrative. And why so many glances at notes during it? He didn’t do that in previous debates. Nerves, perhaps?

Meanwhile, I have to give it Cameron. I disagree with him in a lot of places. And I think he really is a Conservative in every fibre of his being. His is an agenda of extreme individualisation, the continuation of the Thatcher legacy that was only perpetuated by Blair.

But his poise, his political antennae, his soundbites and his narrative were mostly correct tonight. He was shameless in shoe-horning in the Euro in a perfect stroke of attacking his rivals. He bashed Gordon Brown to hell. He patronised Nick Clegg like he didn’t deserve to be playing with the grown-ups. Clegg reacted well, but the damage was already done.

And then his closing statement was much the stronger. Authoritative, stern, clear. He lost points for being caught out frowning too often, but it doesn’t seem to matter any more. He looked a bit greasy too, sometimes a bit too smooth with the way he tried to charm the questioner. I didn’t like it, but it doesn’t wash with me. I think the electorate will.

Gordon Brown, I thought, actually had a decent debate. He was his usual self, bashing through the numbers, playing the experience card time and time again. He should have said “this is no time for a novice” because it would have been appropriate. But he didn’t. He looked very edgy at the beginning, but warmed up, and delivered his worst to Nick Clegg largely by ignoring him.

Brown’s focus was broadly on David Cameron and the “same old Tories”. It, and the inheritance tax line, is his strongest suit. He did his damn hardest to play it. He made the point time and time again, even if it was totally tangential to the question. He’s certainly been trained well.

But it’s too late for him. The electorate has no empathy for him. The few left that do are all Labour supporters anyway.

Overall though, it was quite a boring debate, despite it being the most lively of them all in terms of attack. But maybe that’s what made it boring. It was all too much like the same old politics. Not like the first one, when Clegg looked fresh, new and took the other two apart for being stuck in the past.

Should it be repeated at the next election? Most definitely. It was long overdue, and has reinvigorated political debate in this country. It was filled with substance and character. It needs a little revision, and I just wish the media would reflect the actual content of the debate as well as who “won” it, but it has, broadly, given the politicians a more direct chance to engage with the electorate.

For today though, there was only one winner, and that was David Cameron. A Tory majority is now very much back on the cards.

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The Content-Free Election

Posted by The Futility Monster on April 29, 2010 @ 11:11

I suspect the 1992 election was about personalities too...

Elections are about people as much as they are about policies. It’s truer now than it’s ever been, but let’s not kid ourselves: personalities matter, and they always have done. In 1964, the aloof, patrician Alec Douglas-Home was bested by “man of the people” Harold Wilson, despite Harold Wilson actually being nothing of the sort.

Image matters.

But this election is certainly taking that to new levels. We can hardly be surprised, what with the election debates and all that. Indeed, when I look back at this post I wrote when the news first broke than the debates would definitely be happening, I now feel quite chuffed:

But most of all, I am worried that unless the debates are truly focused on policies and vision for Britain, we are going to hear a lot more about whether David Cameron “looks like a Prime Minister”.

We’ve had enough of politics being trivialised and reduced to the lowest common denominator in this country. It’s been a bad couple of years, yes, but not so bad as to completely sell out our system to soap opera style bickering and televised chat shows.

OK, the debates themselves have not been like that. The rules have made the conduct orderly, and the leaders have done their level best to have a debate on policy.

But that’s not what gets reported afterwards. It has been all about how each leader reacted to the pressure. How they expressed their point of view. How confident they looked on camera. Whether, in fact, they even looked at the camera.

And as any good PR person will tell you, it’s not the event that matters, it’s how it’s reported.

The debates have turned the election into one long serial drama. The third act will take place tonight.

Inbetween, we have been kept entertained with morsels about “who won”. But rarely has the conversation entered into the realms of what they talked about for 90 minutes.

And then, to cap it all, we have yesterday’s Gordon Brown gaffe, which totally destroyed the agenda of all the parties – they were wanting to talk about the economy in the lead up to tonight’s debate.

We’ve basically had three weeks of  personality politics so far. Substantive examination of policies has gone out the window.

Who benefits most from that?

Ironically, it probably has to be the Liberal Democrats. Often we hear about them not getting enough attention. But this time, they are getting it, and it’s all being focused on the two key players at the top of the party: Nick and Vince. But if all the focus was on the minutiae of Liberal Democrat policy, you can be sure that the Tories and Labour would be spinning that “they say one thing in Labour seats, but say the other in Tory seats = you can’t trust the Lib Dems” – in spite of it being wholly false, because it plays into the stereotypes about Lib Dems that the electorate is so keen to wallow in.

But it suits the politicians. After all, who wants to talk about what sacrifices have to be made? The electorate will only punish you for telling the truth anyway.

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The Second Election Debate: Wordled And Numbered

Posted by The Futility Monster on April 23, 2010 @ 11:17

Time for some fun with the second debate transcript. Before we begin, might I suggest opening my post from this time last week, because it’s very useful for comparative purposes.

There are a few surprises in store for this week’s word analysis of the debate. Last week we discovered Gordon Brown likes the word “got”, and David Cameron and Nick Clegg like to think. We also found out that Alastair Stewart did a great job of ensuring everyone got the chance to say about the same amount.

But first, the bit that we all enjoy, the Wordles!

Gordon Brown

Nick Clegg

David Cameron

What I found most striking this week compared with last is the fact that clearly some big lessons have been learned. Whilst Gordon Brown still has difficulty telling us what he thinks, he is now a bit more balanced. The similarity between the kind of words being used is also telling: they’re copying each other’s best bits to some degree. And no one did that more than Gordon, stealing Nick Clegg’s best lines from last week on several occasions. Squabbling children?

Starting with Nick Clegg, my first point is that he seemed to deviate from his winning formula from last week: merely setting out his stall. This time, it was more about the people. Not a mistake, but it clearly hasn’t worked as well. If you look at last week, that’s what both Cameron and Brown were doing, and Clegg’s difference from that path worked well. This time , he chose to be much broader, more scattergun, and it has caused his coherent message of “What I think” or “What the Liberal Democrats think” to be diluted. The prominence of the word “change” too clearly shows the Lib Dems have been watching Obama’s debate performances too much.

He also failed by getting too involved in what he would term the old politics. There is some evidence from the wiggly lines, both when I watched last night and from the 2008 US debates, that direct attacks on a person don’t really work, and can reflect badly on you instead. In the first debate, Nick hardly referred to the other leaders. This time, he said the word “Gordon” 18 times, and “David” 14 times (cf. 5 and 5 last time). That was a mistake. The winning formula for him is to ignore their pathetic attempts to bring him down to their level, and rise above it. That’s what I suggested yesterday, and I think that’s borne out here.

As for David Cameron, his performance was much more controlled. Thematically, he did better. Look at the size of the words “make”, “need”, “want” and “country” relative to the others. That has to be deliberate. A very careful strategy to set out the difference his party would make.

But guess what? Cameron learned from Clegg. References to Gordon? 8 (cf. 16 last time). References to Nick. Believe it or not, just 4. It’s such a reversal that it can’t have failed to influence the way the debate proceeded, and it too must have been deliberate. Now David Cameron was the man rising above the other two. His messaging was clearer. He likes the word “actually”. Clichéd, yes. Normal sounding? Most definitely. That’s what Clegg did last week. Cameron stole it from him.

Meanwhile, Gordon Brown was still Gordon Brown. He said the ugly words “got” or “get” a stunning 94 times (Clegg: 47; Cameron: 69). He is a clunker in every sense of the word. He implores. He demands. We’ve got to do this. We’ve got to do that. It’s all very authoritarian. And yet, he definitely enriched his speaking this week. He talked about more issues, and had a more balanced approach. That’s not how I remember it; he seemed to repeat himself a lot last night, but the numbers here don’t lie.

To finish, let’s look at what has provided me with the biggest shock…

Second Debate: Vital Statistics
Gordon Brown David Cameron Nick Clegg
Words 6077 5599 5940
Sentences 319 295 299
Words per sentence 19.0 18.9 19.8
Flesch Reading Ease 66.4 69.3 65.9
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 8.7 8.2 8.9

Last week, all three of them managed about 5,500 words. This week, only David Cameron got that. Gordon Brown managed to speak an extra 500. No wonder he got more issues in, being more balanced.

Meanwhile, Nick Clegg also spoke nearly 500 more words, after speaking the least last week (5476). That didn’t work out for him. It allowed him to say too much on some issues. He tried to be more robust, and get more involved. He was, I suppose, responding to the challenges that Brown and Cameron were demanding of him, whereas they largely ignored him last time. Their plan worked, but they dragged Clegg into their bearpit in the process. This week, he did not look and act sufficiently different to the others. He became more of a brawler. Hence the different, less positive, response from the electorate.

Clegg’s sentences also became longer, suggesting he got tied up more by trying to explain himself and complicated ideas. It doesn’t work. The electorate tune out.

David Cameron can feel a little hard done by, having not been given as fair a crack of the whip as the others. Which then makes it all the more remarkable that he did less with more. Verbosity is never rewarded in politics, and Cameron gets the plaudits here.

As last week, they all spoke at roughly the same level, with an almost uniform increase of about 0.4 in the grade level. Maybe the topics this week were more complex, making for slightly longer sentences, and definitely more syllables.

But that’s enough number crunching from me. I could go on, but this is long enough already.

So let’s finish with Adam Boulton’s wordle…

Adam Boulton

He clearly likes thanking people more than Alastair Stewart, anyway.


Please note my transcripts for each individual are cleaned up, no paragraphs, no line breaks, and no markers for where one part of the debate conversation began or ended. That’s the most useful form for textual analysis, and I share them with you above.

If you do anything else funky with this stuff, please place a link to it in the comments. I’d love to read it.

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The Second Debate Post-Mortem

Posted by The Futility Monster on April 22, 2010 @ 22:52

Sky definitely had a better set than ITV, but that was the only winner in their debate...

Watching the live poll results coming in on the Angus Reid website has been very illuminating.

I genuinely believe that Nick Clegg won the second debate. Brown was his usual self, never any different. He just does not look comfortable, and bores me to tears. He has no life or vigour. He does not radiate the change the country apparently wants according to opinion polls. He also shamelessly stole winning lines from Nick Clegg from last week. An embarrassment as prime minister. No thanks.

David Cameron was far more aggressive this time. He performed much more strongly, in my opinion. He too was his usual self. It was the Cameron I expected to turn up last week. He is articulate. He has good lines ready at the drop of a hat.

But looking purely at the reaction shots, looking at his behaviour, expressions, mannerisms – all of this, bear in mind, that most voters do – he never seems right. He seems agitated. Angry, even. The furrowed brow. The insincere, patrician tone.

On policy, Cameron and Brown did indeed choose to gang up Clegg. It worked in some respects. Brown had pre-scripted lines to use on Clegg. They’d been planning the Trident attack for a week. It seems, however, they’ve done it in such a way that allowed them to get away with it. It was more subtle and undermining his authority. A little patronising too.

Meanwhile, Clegg didn’t attack the rubbish robustly enough. He allowed Brown to get away with nonsense accusations of anti-Americanism, and when Adam Boulton disgracefully asked a personal question (against the rules) to Nick Clegg, he didn’t take the opportunity to destroy the allegation piece by piece. And he failed to remind everyone that it was the Tories who broke the link between pensions and earnings.

I think, on balance, the three of them all had a decent debate. Clegg hasn’t secured a major victory simply because the others have raised their game to such a level. That is bearing out in the polls. A YouGov one giving it to Cameron (which Sky dutifully gave huge prominence to), a ComRes one giving it to Clegg, and Angus Reid very finely balanced. More will surely follow.

But the biggest loser, tonight, I think was Sky.

The debate itself was more enjoyable this week, and yet the questions were appalling. The ones in the international section were an utter bore. Adam Boulton persisted with the Pope one despite it being a total non-issue. He was far too hands off and allowed too much squabbling, deviation and repetition. And why another question on immigration? Where was the specific question on Trident? Why were the leaders constantly allowed to go on ludicrous tangents without being brought back into line?

And that was what annoyed me. I’m pretty certain that Clegg was the only one who constantly brought the issue back to whatever it was the questioner asked. It was much more sincere, it was much more genuine, and felt like he was trying to engage with them. It felt like he really passionately cared about them, and his enthusiasm for public service was infectious. He finished extremely strongly, making up for a couple of verbal wobbles in the middle.

That doesn’t seem to have got fully across though. The nation, despite polls to the contrary, really does enjoy negativity. It’s clear that Brown and Cameron’s strategy of attacking the Clegg they embraced so strongly last week has had resonance.

But that’s the public for you. Very fickle. You can see that by watching the wiggly lines, which I’ve just done for 15 minutes on ITV! There’s always an immediate spike whenever someone injects a note of humanity into their speech. Either a friendly gesture, a smile, a pause for thought, a reflection, or even using normal turns of phrases.

Cameron will get the plaudits for this debate. He did a much better job, and perhaps for that he deserves the win.

But one thing it has done, is confirm that this is a very wide open race, temper those wild Lib Dem expectations, and maybe give the opportunity to surprise once more in the final bout…

Viewers? 8m maximum. 6m average. Something like that. We’ll see…

UPDATE – 23/4/10: Turns out only 4m people watched it after all. But that just means even more people will rely on the media to tell them “who won”. Bad.

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The First Election Debate: Wordled And Numbered

Posted by The Futility Monster on April 17, 2010 @ 10:21

Though I’m terribly excited about last night’s 30% poll rating for the Lib Dems, it worries me that we have peaked too early and will run out of gas before the finish line. I will wait for more polling developments before commenting further…

In the meantime, I’ve had a bit of fun with the debate transcript. For your viewing pleasure, the Wordles of the speeches of the three main party leaders…

Gordon Brown

Nick Clegg

David Cameron

This is genuinely fascinating stuff. Gordon Brown barely ever tells us what he “thinks”, whereas Nick Clegg and David Cameron were always doing it. I can’t believe that this is deliberate, but it would certainly highlight a lack of self-confidence on Gordon’s part.

The fact that Gordon’s favourite word was “got” also says something for his manner of speaking. “Got” is an ugly word to begin with, but to say it 65 times (Clegg: 20; Cameron: 24) is remarkable. It highlights Gordon Brown’s method of continuously imploring other people, agencies or departments to do something. Not entirely convincing after 13 years in office.

Note, too, that Cameron and Brown both referred to each other, and Nick, so many times that it appeared in their top 100 words. Cameron said the word “Gordon” 16 times. Nick Clegg, on the other hand, barely referred to them at all (David: 5; Gordon: 5). This lack of personalising his opponents, dismissing them as representatives of a broken system is very illuminating about how Nick portrayed himself as the outsider.

Feel free to draw your own conclusions and share them in the comments.

Finally, just so we can put to bed any accusations that Clegg got too much coverage in the debate, here are some more statistics…

First Debate: Vital Statistics
Gordon Brown David Cameron Nick Clegg
Words 5588 5560 5476
Sentences 298 302 294
Words per sentence 18.7 18.4 18.6
Flesch Reading Ease 67.0 70.8 66.7
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 8.4 7.9 8.5

These numbers are slightly less exciting, but they do point out that Alastair Stewart was incredibly fair. They were following the rules perfectly behind the scenes, ensuring that Alastair got the balance exactly right. Though there may have been slight variations in time, they all roughly managed to say the same amount of words. Clegg even said slightly less than the others, and yet still is perceived to have won. It’s wot you do with them that counts, remember.

They all speak so the average American 8th grader could understand: roughly 13 or 14 years old. The figures for reading ease also bear that out. That’s no surprise, but probably isn’t all that deliberate either. Most politicians have been doing so all their lives and consequently know no other way of talking to the public. Then again, average speech is never particularly challenging anyway.

For comparative purposes, I stuck one of my academic essays through the grinder, and got a remarkable 15th grade score. 15th grade doesn’t exist, but basically means only academic fools would follow the ludicrously long sentences and mega long words with multiple syllables. Oh, how pretentious I feel now. A 28 word sentence average is enough to drive anyone to despair. That’s why politicians, also trying to explain difficult concepts and get across their views, keep the sentences shorter. That’s why they all got 18 word sentences. Clever buggers.

That’s enough, I think, but let’s finish with just a bit of fun. How did Alastair Stewart do?

Alastair Stewart

Suffice it to say, “MR CAMERON!”, “MR CLEGG!” and “MR BROWN!” should become the catchphrases of the election.


If you do anything else funky with this stuff, please place a link to it in the comments. I’d love to read it.

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The Debate Post-Mortem

Posted by The Futility Monster on April 16, 2010 @ 08:57

He's a happy chappy...

Yesterday, I posed three questions, and here are the answers:

  • Will David Cameron Seal The Deal? – NO
  • Can Nick Clegg Justify His Inclusion? – YES
  • Is Gordon Brown Capable Of Fighting Back? – NOT LIKELY

Apart from the BBC (who never take a stance even if it’s staring them in the face), everyone else is unanimous. The Mail called it a “shock victory” for Clegg. The Telegraph, The Times, The Independent, Sky News (and their bizarre voodoo poll), YouGov, ComRes, Populus, Angus Reid… even The Sun grudgingly had to admit it was Nick Clegg, though they quickly commissioned another poll asking “Who would make the best PM?” to restore their David Cameron love fest.

Yesterday I thought Cameron would win, and I thought Clegg could not get a clear victory. That position was wrong. Cameron made a serious tactical error by engaging only with Gordon Brown, arguing and bickering. Cameron reeled out anecdote after anecdote, failing to recognise that many anecdotes do not equal data, and that stories are no substitute for telling us your own vision. He was also a little nervous, a little tetchy, very cautious… and was caught out by the reaction shot time and again.

Cameron was supposed to do exactly what Clegg did. He was supposed to point to Gordon Brown’s wretched record and say that he is the only one who can deliver any sort of change. He was supposed to swat away the Lib Dems as an irrelevance. He was supposed to say that his new Conservative Party can fix the broken Britain.

Cameron’s nervousness at the start meant he took a while to get going. It’s widely acknowledged that he finished much better. He didn’t have a bad night, by any means. He still engaged with the debate well, but didn’t shine as I expected him to. Perhaps he didn’t take enough risks. His body language was definitely a net loser. Labour are spinning it’s because he can’t handle spontaneity, but I disagree with that. Maybe he just wasn’t in the zone. At least we get another two looks to see if there’s form.

As for Brown, probably the less said the better. Expectations were indeed low, and he just about reached them. He was dull, dry, but played to his strongest hand – his experience of government. The result being that he was able to make a case for an old hand on the wheel. However, he made no gaffes, and performed as he normally would in any TV interview: confident, determined, and totally oblivious to reality.

Clegg seized upon these missteps by continuously dismissing the two as the same old politics. They let him get away with that, to some extent, mindful that bashing the Lib Dems could be seen as picking on the smaller party, and that they may rely on them later. They won’t be so coy in the next debate, where Clegg will now be seen as fair game.


Brown is Brown. We know him extremely well by now. As such, he cannot do anything sensational that would ever result in a fightback. David Cameron had the most to lose, and he did suffer a small setback as a result of his below average sparring.

But Clegg clearly did justify his place at the table, was confident and assured, and the format of giving him a fair crack of the whip, and not having to answer questions on hung parliaments, suited his agenda very well.

Winning the first one is by far the biggest prize. The ratings will be much lower for the Sky News one, not just because it’s on a lesser channel, but also because the novelty factor is no longer there. The BBC one will be the next most important one. Clegg can afford to cruise a little in the next one, but Cameron will be out to get him, for sure. A more risk-taking approach from him may even the scores if he can strike the right tone.

One thing alone will prove whether Cameron is a quick learner. Will he copy Clegg’s debate style of looking down the lens more, of addressing particular members of the audience (even by name), and of using gestures to show his separation from “the other two”?

There were no gaffes, no major errors. Which is good, in many ways. It made the debate more about the arguments, and the presentation. And on that score, there was plenty to get stuck into…

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The First Debate: Liveblog

Posted by The Futility Monster on April 15, 2010 @ 20:33

Joy upon joys! The First EVER Prime Ministerial Debate is upon us. Such a momentous occasion should only be marked with a liveblog. Starting now! (reversed to chronological order for the archives)

2032: Well, we’re running a little late, but no surprise. ITV had to squeeze in the maximum ads in the time they had left. 90 mins of prime time with no ads starts right here!

2033: Overly dramatic string quartet there…

2033: That’s the last time we’ll hear the audience clap. I think…

2034: Clegg seeming confident. Angry frown when he mentioned bankers. Nice start.

2035: Why did Gordon Brown not get an introduction from Alistair Stewart? Brown refusing to look down the camera lens.

2036: Cameron and Clegg both looked into the camera. That’s the right move in these circumstances when you’re addressing the nation. Cameron looking a little nervous.

2037: First subject: immigration. Brown confident, reeling out policies he’s done. Thunderous in his delivery as usual. Sly glance at the lights on his podium; they’ll tell the speaker if they’re going over time.

2039: Not much debate so far. It’s a question and answer session with them virtually ignoring each other’s presence. Clegg trying to refer to his opponents, but will the rules allow a proper debate to break out?

2040: Brown is able to crow about the things he’s done in government to buttress his arguments. It’s reliant on the other two to point out where he’s failed. Are they going to do that? Cameron instead coming back to his own anecdotes.

2042: You couldn’t put a cigarette paper between the three parties on immigration any more. Depressing. Clegg confirming that now everyone loves the anti-immigration bandwagon.

2043: Clegg still the only one trying to strike up a debate. Cameron takes the bait, but it turns into a love in. Interesting reaction shot of Clegg. Brown gets nasty. Much better!

2044: Cameron declines Brown’s argument, and reverts to talking points. Brown starts talking over him. Clegg chooses to respond by addressing the nation down the lens, while Brown and Cameron bicker.

2045: Brown embraces Clegg. Will they gang up on Cameron?

2047: Cameron asked Clegg a question, and then totally ignored him. No eye-contact in the reaction shot. Body language, Mr Cameron!

2049: New subject: burglary. Cameron jumps on the Tony Martin bandwagon. Clegg attacks ID cards. Not a populist argument, but he’s brave enough to take it on. Brown fidgeting in the wide shot. Pay attention, Gordon.

2050: The slow zoom ins as they reply are very irritating.

2051: Cameron going for the liberal line of treating drug addicts rather than putting them in prison. I like it. Clegg still unsure about whether to talk to the audience in the room, or the audience on the sofa.

2052: Clegg sounds like he’s trying to sell Mark Oaten’s “tough liberalism” of 2005. Not much debate happening here though. Ignoring each other, reproducing their own stories and their own narrative. Oh my. Interest waning…

2055: Brown talking in percentages. That’s not the way to win. Brown gets the first laugh from the audience. The rules have been broken!

2056: Brown talking over Cameron. Seemingly enjoying himself. Alistair Stewart has to stop Brown to let Cameron in, who quickly resorts to yet another anecdote. Clegg interjects, actually addressing the other two.

2057: Cameron’s replies are mostly anecdotes. Brown’s are mostly numbers. Brown gets another minor titter, but the last word goes to Cameron. Brown smiling in that eerie way in the background.

2058: At last, a bit more of a major topic. Political reform.

2100: Clegg and Brown both getting on their high horses so far. Righteous indignation. Too late now. Brown stealing Lib Dem policies too.

2101: Cameron looking a litte flushed under those studio lights. But he’s certainly in his stride now. Cameron focusing on political reform that would reduce costs.

2102: Clegg highlighting the hypocrisy of the Tory and Labour parties. Lib Dems are no saints either, but it sounds good right now. Cameron frowning. Brown not paying attention. Clegg laughs incredulously at Brown’s sudden conversion to radical reform.

2103: Cameron’s turn to bash Labour hypocrisy over failure to reform the Lords. Very good. Cameron appealing to the nation’s wallets, time and time again. Now Brown says he’ll cut the cost of politics more than the Tories. The nation is confused.

2105: The leaders are taking too many notes. They look like they’re ignoring each other. Cameron attacks Clegg regarding Michael Brown’s dodgy donation to the Lib Dems. Handbags at nine paces, gents.

2106: Brown bizarrely saying the debate level needs to be raised. There didn’t seem to be a problem before then. Brown still trying to embrace Clegg; Clegg rejecting those advances.

2107: Sounds like a consensus has broken out over the right of recall for MPs. What an unusual place for that to happen.

2108: Clegg got the last word there on political reform. Bashed Brown again over blocking reform. Good finish, I think.

2110: The debate turns to education. Platitudes galore here. This one will be a snore fest. Cameron heading into statistics mode; and then a personal anecdote.

2111: Clegg’s turn. We all want to cut bureaucracy, of course. It never happens. The voters don’t care.

2113: Brown glossing over the government’s lamentable failure in the education system. Hopefully the other two will pick him up on it.

2114: Cameron now turns to discipline. Very Michael Howard, circa 2005. And another anecdote. He’s desperate to paint the picture of broken Britain…

2115: Clegg makes fun of the fact that he can’t ask questions of the other person. Clegg looking confident, actually addressing the questioner now. Looks better that. Cameron turning to the left and right often. Tries a joke, fails. Tries another anecdote. Stop it!

2116: Brown trying to make the issue about cuts in departmental budgets. Cameron takes the bait and rams home the economic messages on NI. Even though it’s about education. Nice.

2117: Cameron is losing the battle of the reaction shot.

2118: Clegg gets another opportunity to smack down the bickering children. He’s doing very well.

2119: Alistair Stewart changes topic, even though it hasn’t changed, because they all started talking about it anyway. It’s the economy, stupid.

2122: Cameron gets the messaging right on the jobs tax. Clegg’s turn, equally on message. And then Brown. The leaders are each very good when they get their chance to make the initial response to the question. The briefings and training have clearly paid off.

2123: I pity the poor floating voter watching this hoping to work out who to vote for.

2124: Clegg takes on the issue of waste. He makes a fair point on the cutting required, but none of the parties are truly honest about the depth of the slashing that needs to be done.

2125: Brown dancing on a pinhead on this issue of waste. He “fears” for the economy if Cameron cuts £6bn this year. It’s hardly going to “wreck” the recovery, Gordon.

2126: Clegg proposing consensual politics about deficit reduction. Cameron refuses Clegg’s plan. Why would he? He wants to do it himself. Why not get all the credit? Cameron embraces Clegg, just slightly. Cameron wants tax cuts, but alas, can’t afford them. Clegg gets another go.

2128: Cameron back to his messaging. Save £1 in £100. Repetition is boring for those of us who hear it day in, day out. But for the millions of normal people, it’s spot on.

2129: Cameron just made the only sentence in the world containing Corus, Logica and Mothercare.

2130: Clegg keeps getting the opportunity to attack the other two after they’ve bickered with each other. Luck is on his side.

2131: New subject: the armed forces.

2132: Clegg gets to attack Trident. Will anyone confront him on that? He’s had an easy ride so far.

2133: Brown takes the opportunity to praise the armed forces. Clegg missed the boat there. Bet you he’s kicking himself.

2134: Cameron now joins the armed forces love in. Clegg turns to anecdotes to attack the poor funding of the British Army.

2135: Brown decides to start answering a question he wasn’t asked. This is a domestic policy debate, isn’t it? Why are we talking about international issues? Well, because Brown has been allowed to get away with it.

2136: Cameron needs to lighten up a little. Brown, naturally, is not able to do that. But Cameron can. He needs to put his positive message across.

2138: Clegg tries to engage the others in debate again, this time over Trident. Cameron gets a chance to talk about it now. Cameron and Brown deploying the classic right-wing argument. Brown playing the PM card. Enjoying the power of his privileged position.

2139: Clegg defending himself on Trident very robustly. But now he appears to have his left hand in his pocket. Impolite, but relaxed. Naughty.

2141: Cameron caught out on the reaction shot again. Shifty leftward glances out the corner of his eyes to Brown.

2142: Subject shifts to healthcare. More platitudes to follow. Very little difference between the parties here. There never is.

2143: Cameron deploys his NHS love argument. With accompanying anecdote, naturally.

2145: Cameron caught frowning again while Brown talks over the reaction shot of Cameron. Cameron’s body language and approach is good when he’s talking. When he’s not…

2147: Brown has not dropped a clanger in the whole debate. No stuttering either. That shouldn’t mean he has done well.

2148: Clegg trying to create a division on healthcare. There is none. Next subject please.

2149: Cameron turns to an anecdote again. I wish I’d been keeping score.

2150: Clegg delivers his closing message early. On tax. Even though we were talking about healthcare. Cameron goads Clegg, but actually plays into his hands. Clegg is then granted another chance to repeat his message by Alistair Stewart!

2153: Final topic is going to be social care for the elderly. A big issue… Cameron gets his message over. Clegg tries again to push the consensual approach. I think, on this subject, it will play well to the audience.

2155: Brown resolutely on message. Clegg frowning at Brown’s phoney agreement with him. Debate fizzling out now. The spinners are on standby.

2156: Cameron gets another anecdote in. Now we’re having a carer lovefest. I’ve seen enough.

2158: This part of the debate is very polite and respectful. Hardly a firey note to end on. Alistair Stewart might have picked a different order for the questions if he had another go. Too much overlap.

2200: Clegg acknowledges that they’ve all been consensual here. Hand still in pocket. Clegg gets the last word, again. He’s been very lucky indeed.

2201: But no luck on the closing statements. Clegg goes first. Staring down the lens, but referencing the audience, and questioners in particular. Good finish, as usual, on the message of “there is an alternative”. Should have tried the four themes of the manifesto though.

2202: Brown seems to have enjoyed the debate, it has to be said. He’s always said he “relishes” the opportunity to debate policy with Cameron, and that seemed to show. He’s not comfortable looking into the camera lens though. Laying down the attacks on Cameron only. Looking forward to the next debate, apparently!

2204: Cameron gets his chance to go for the positive message, at last. Change. Change. Leadership. He did well too, but not relative to the high expectations I had.

2206: And it’s over. Have to say Clegg is the winner. I would say that, but don’t take my word for it. The polling is looking like that too. Though these are very early returns!

2212: Reaction is phenomenal. It’s just like the aftermath of a US presidential debate. This is what we need in British politics.

2215: BBC going for the reaction lines, courtesy of IPSOS MORI. I don’t think they’re the same type as the ones used in US elections though.

2220: ITV chose to ignore the thing that many millions of people watched, on their own channel, which has made history in this election, in favour of a story that affected tens, maybe hundreds of thousands. Crazy.

2227: YouGov, Angus Reid, ComRes all giving it to Clegg. And yet Sky News has a bizarre poll taken after one hour (why?) which gives it to Cameron. Who did your poll, Sky News?

2241: The post-debate spinning is well underway, but there can be no denying it… Clegg was the winner. Cameron underperformed, but was still solid. Brown bored us to tears, but didn’t stumble. A more complete analysis tomorrow…

Posted in Musings | Tagged: , , , , | 24 Comments »

Is Gordon Brown Capable Of Fighting Back?

Posted by The Futility Monster on April 15, 2010 @ 18:00

Better the devil you know... would that attitude win it for him?

Expectations are horrendously low for Gordon Brown as a result of the fact that most of us have known him as a politician for nearly 20 years and have seen his transformation from clunking-fist to hulking-brooder.

In the early 90s, Brown was a fearful opponent to Tory Chancellors. He spun and smeared effectively, and had the ability to steamroll his counterpart with his usual rapid-fire delivery. It worked, and was appropriate for the time. The same was true during his stint as Chancellor, though his ability to dodge questions and leave them to his juniors was well noted.

But as PM, such behaviour is not acceptable. PMs have to cover all issues with great confidence and command the respect of the nation in order to win.

Gordon Brown cannot do that, and it will not change tonight.

What he can do, however, is use those phenomenally low expectations in his favour.

Nobody is expecting Brown to win. No one expects Brown’s rather unnatural, stilted delivery to knock anyone down tonight.

That is then, his greatest strength.

Outperform even slightly, and the country will be pleasantly surprised. Show that he is indeed capable of debating Cameron, by showing, at last, a degree of humility and honesty, and he will reap the rewards. Show that he is a human being by making an emotional connection with the audience. Any topic will do. It might have to be shameless. It might have to be about the loss of his child, especially if Cameron mentions his own trauma.

Some might say that’s the sure fire way to looking crass and insensitive. But if someone else brings it up, the door is open. He probably shouldn’t spontaneously do it, but if they start talking about the NHS, and then about how marvellous it has been for them… one thing can quickly lead to another.

He has the advantage of being the underdog, while still being the Prime Minister. He has the ability to give little nudges of patronisation in Cameron’s direction by, for instance, talking in great detail on a specific part of government that he knows well. If he does that, and Cameron waffles a general response on the topic, Brown will get the chance to deliver his favourite “no time for a novice” line. It will make him look experienced, and Cameron a dangerous, uninformed risk. He should lay a couple of those traps.

Overall though, if he can get through the debate without sounding robotic, and talking with stuttering, stumbling or reeling out tractor production statistics, as well as just make a couple of connections with the audience, he will be able to emerge triumphant. It won’t be the disaster everyone is expecting, and he will gain the momentum going into the second debate (which is on Sky News, and will be lucky to get 1/10th of the viewing figures).

Will he do it, however? No, I don’t think so. He might actually be incapable of all of the above.

And if he flops even more, the game will most definitely be over.

Posted in Musings | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

Can Nick Clegg Justify His Inclusion?

Posted by The Futility Monster on April 15, 2010 @ 16:00

Gotta be a yellow tie tonight though, Nick...

Nick Clegg, in one respect, has already won. Being able to be on the stage despite the fact that he has zero chance of being Prime Minister is a great coup. In some ways though, he deserves it. This is still a parliamentary system, and Clegg is representing Lib Dems up and down the country.

What that says is that he has a much broader weight to bear. While Cameron and Brown can carry their party single handedly, Clegg must do a good job on behalf of all Lib Dem candidates out there. He can’t rely on Vince Cable tonight, though expect his name to appear several times…

In order to win the debate, however, Clegg has a mountain to climb. He must look, sound and act prime ministerial without getting petulant or losing his cool. He has to prove that he is indeed worthy of being on that stage. The key way of doing so is to ram home the Liberal Democrat “four themes” in every single answer. The goal is to make sure the watching audience know exactly what Lib Dems stand for, in order that local campaigns can keep building on that momentum.

He must get the message across that his party wants to do things differently. That is easy, but it’s not so easy to convince the audience you mean it, simply because Cameron will be saying exactly the same thing. He could go on the attack against the whole democratic system of the country, but that would very much make him look like a loose cannon, potentially unstable. Unfit for leadership. I don’t envy him.

I very much expect a measured, dignified, controlled performance from Clegg as a result, one that will set off no fireworks, but do no harm in the credibility stakes. Much like the Paxman interview. It won’t make him the winner, but it will do enough to encourage many people that they can trust the Lib Dems.

How he reacts under cross-examination will be key. Nick Clegg has a tendency to look a bit flustered if the pressure is applied. And if he fluffs any of the classic party message on hung parliaments, he will be in trouble.

A precarious tightrope to walk across, then, but one he can conquer by staying in control and fully balanced.

Clegg already gets his prize for being there. Jeopardising it with a dodgy performance will finish the Lib Dems as a potential credible force for another generation. Seeing it through with a solid, but unremarkable, performance will ensure the visibility bonus will carry forward into the coming weeks.

A tough job. He can’t “win”, but he can give the party a lift.

Posted in Musings | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »