Friday, 27 March 2015

Not a good day at the office for Cameron

I suspect Thursday wasn't the best day of David Cameron's political life: first the Supreme Court ruled against him on his attempt to block publication of Prince Charles's private letters to government ministers (three cheers for the Supreme Court); then MPs voted against his attempt to change the rules to make it easier to get rid of the Speaker of the House of Commons (three cheers for independent-minded MPs).

And then, after supper, Jeremy Paxman gave him a thorough, and distinctly uncomfortable, going over in the TV-debate-that-wasn't (three cheers for Jeremy Paxman). If Samantha was still up when he finally got home, she probably asked him if he's sure he wants the job for another five years.

I'm going to assume that you had better things to do than watch the TV-debate-that-wasn't-a-TV-debate. That's why I watched it for you -- no, I'll be honest, I would have watched it anyway. I'm an addict.

So perhaps you want to know who I thought did best. I'll tell you. No ifs, no buts. It was Jeremy Paxman. By a million miles. Which unfortunately tells you precisely nothing about the likely outcome of the election. But that doesn't mean it was a waste of time. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Let me explain. (Explanation: Ed Miliband used the expression repeatedly during his encounter with J Paxman. It did get a bit tiresome after a while.) In case you were in any doubt, you're more likely to see what a politician is made of when s/he is up against a skilled interviewer than in any other format. True, they didn't tell you anything you didn't already know about their policies, but there's more to politics than policies.

In a TV studio, you see how they handle pressure. You see how good they are at marshalling facts and arguments. And you see how quick they are on their feet, spotting an opening, trotting out their rehearsed zingers. Does it help you decide how to cast your vote? Only, probably, if you're still genuinely undecided, and all the signs are that over the past several months, there's been precious little change in overall voting intentions.

(With one exception: in Scotland, there's been a substantial swing from Labour to the SNP since the independence referendum last September. It makes an overall Labour majority in the House of Commons far less likely, even if Mr Miliband did call Paxman "presumptious" for assuming that he may well have to start haggling with Alex Salmond after 7 May if he emerges with more seats than the Tories.)  

It has always been acknowledged that TV debates tend to work to the advantage of challengers rather than incumbents. Attacking is always easier than defending -- and even such an accomplished wordsmith as Barack Obama was seriously whacked by an otherwise unimpressive Mitt Romney in the first of their debates in 2012. It should be no surprise, then, that Mr Cameron did everything he could to ensure that he wouldn't be going head-to-head with Mr Miliband.

I'm on record as being something of a Milibandista. I wrote last November that I thought he could be a pretty good prime minister -- and on the basis of what I saw during the debate-that-wasn't, I have no reason to change my opinion. He has passion, he has intellect, and he has a clear sense of what he wants for the country's future. I also liked the way he handled both Jeremy Paxman and the studio audience: self-deprecating and human with the audience, but quick with the counter-punches when Paxman started pummelling. ("You're important, Jeremy, but not that important.")

The Miliband strategy is to try to enable as many voters as possible to get a clear look at him between now and election day, to see him for themselves and not just through the jaundiced eyes of the far-from-neutral national media.

The Cameron strategy, on the other hand, is to frame the electoral choice as simply between competence and chaos. The Conservative message is that Labour brought you economic collapse and chaos (the banks had nothing to do with it, of course), leaving the oh-so-competent Tories to pick up the pieces and painfully rebuild the foundations for a more prosperous future.

According to a Guardian-ICM poll published immediately the non-debate ended, Ed Miliband was seen by respondents as having done better than David Cameron on four counts: governing in the interests of the many not the few; having the courage to say what’s right rather than what’s popular; understanding “people like me”; and on the balance between spin and substance.

But Cameron also won on four counts: being respected around the world: being decisive; being good in a crisis; and being backed by his party. He also won overall, by the relatively slim margin of 54 to 46 per cent.

As for Paxman, on his first post-BBC outing, he is still at the top of his game. What a shame he wasn't given longer with each of the party leaders.

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