I was entirely unsurprised by Nick Clegg’s performance last night. He came across like he usually does in bloggers’ interviews – passionate, quite eloquent at times and for want of a better word, genuine. He did all the things you’re supposed to do – replied directly to the questioner, remembered people’s names, visibly tried to work out answers to the actual questions rather than defaulting immediately to manifesto-speak. Had good posture, looked relaxed, came across like a human being. Derided the old way of doing things, suggested that we could do something different. Blah blah. Seen him do that schtick a dozen times. None of it is rocket science.
He did have the advantage of a reasonably coherent policy programme to talk from, but the real explanation, which I’ve not seen any journalist mention, is the town hall meetings. It was one of the first things Clegg said on becoming leader in December 2007, that he was going to get out of Westminster every couple of weeks, and stand in a town hall or community centre or a school taking questions and flak from an unscreened, unplanted audience. He’s done that all round the country, unnoticed by the London media establishment, probably about a hundred times in the last two years. It’s not surprising that he’s quite good at it, it’s just practice.
One moment where I felt the practice really showed was the question from a boy about his schooling, and why it involved such a frenetic pace and so many exams. Both Brown and Cameron talked in general terms about schooling, standards and funding, but it was only when Cameron started on the horrors of unruly pupils that it dawned on me -these two have only ever talked about this to adults. Parents, teachers, whoever. Their stock lines on education are absolutely not prepared for answering a question from a pupil. Clegg got it – “you mean creativity, don’t you” – and answered the question that had been put to him, with the situation of the questioner in mind.
He also displayed familiar faults, chiefly getting carried away with exploring one point when a sharply rattled-off list is what’s required. I noticed this habit when he was running for the leadership. It was really noticeable when Cameron asked him – rhetorically – how raising the personal allowance to £10,000 was going to be paid for, and Alistair Stewart quickly stepped in to make the rhetorical actual. This was an on-a-plate opportunity for Clegg to put the lid on the question and rattle off the list of measures which will pay for the raise – they’re in the manifesto – and he only got to the end of one of them because he got so enthusiastic about why it was a good idea. Brown rattles off lists all the time and sounds awful, but there is a happy medium and I don’t think Clegg has quite got there yet. He needs to sharpen this up.
Still, all in all, an unsurprisingly decent performance.
No, the revelation of the night, for me, was David Cameron. Anxious, sweaty, somehow indefinably lumpy (and something else…piscine?), many of his answers were delivered in the sort of rambling bark that works so well on the floor of the House of Commons and was clearly never, ever going to work on camera and to a studio audience. After he saw Clegg do it, he got the hang of the fact that in an audience debate you go back to the questioner – but he needed to be shown, apparently.
This surprised me, because I thought that, however much I might disagree with him, he was a player. This is Dave the great communicator, right? Elected leader because he was supposed to be good at putting across what the Tories stand for. Regularly wipes the floor with Brown at PMQs and stares earnestly into TV cameras when being interviewed by journalists. We all expect Brown to sound like a dalek – “I say to the nation” – but I was very surprised at how often Cameron came across as thoroughly ill-at-ease.
He was confident on the traditional Tory stamping grounds of crime and immigration, mind, and that slightly bombastic hectoring style he has is what right-wing people like to hear when those topics are discussed. So that worked well, and will have shored up his core vote without necessarily persuading anybody new. But his style has basically been evolved to browbeat Brown across the despatch boxes, and he seemed torn between going for business as usual and the (correct) realisation that it would make him look like a boor in this context. He had no alternative style to call upon, it seemed.
But above all, I was surprised by his failure to put across a positive vision for government. I have never been one of these people whose default assumption is that he represents the “same old Tories”. I thought they were supposed to be all about self-reliance, big society, mutualism, localism, a smaller state, volunteering etc. That was what the manifesto was all about. And yet last night, Cameron didn’t mention it until his closing speech, as if he’d suddenly found a shoe horn.
I suppose what this underlines is how poorly the Tory narrative actually hangs together. The common soundbite policies – the NI package, inheritance and marriage tax breaks, longer prison sentences, immigration cap, being nice to the NHS – are all either traditional and predictable, or have been made on the hoof in response to attack. None of them have much to do with all the localism/DIY stuff. The exception is probably free schools, but then Gove and Cameron shaft any DIY overtones in that one every time they start ranting in enormous detail about how Key Stage Whatever History should be taught.
This debate was always Cameron’s to lose (Labour and Conservatives will tell you that it was Clegg’s to win, but the odds said different. It was his to not fuck up, yes, but to win he had to win). But this is not just about expectations – opportunities were clearly missed by Cameron. Brown was offering the audience fear, Cameron could have been the man of the hour if he’d offered them hope. He not only failed to do that, he failed on some surprisingly basic presentational stuff as well. I’m not sure what they’ve been doing up to now, but I suspect there’ll be some very different practising going on in CCHQ over the next week or so.