Happily for the reader, others with better notes and more sense have already been blogging on the substance of last night’s London leadership hustings while I was busily engaged in eating a bowl of cous-cous and singing gently to myself. I am therefore free to kick back with a few disorderly observations. We’ve all done policy to death over the last few weeks (well, every bugger else has, I’ve just been reading and tutting). No-one with an ounce of sanity doubts that these are two highly intelligent, able, confident potential leaders and most people I have spoken to are rightly happy with either prospect. For me, as for a lot of us, it’s going to come down to presentation and selectivity of content.
You can tell a lot about a man if you look at him from the side. I arrived late and was forced into a seat of unlovely prominence, perching right up by the stage like a particularly keen and swotty budgerigar in a school for budgerigars. This had the advantage that I could scan the rest of the budgies to see how they were taking it (very well, for the most part, except when Nick mentioned positive discrimination and we all turned into stuffed budgies; you could have heard a seed drop).
The disadvantage was that, owing to said prominence and the notepad on my knee (I was working on my novel in dull moments) I think Nick may have identified me as a journalist. I was near a phalanx of them, and the flashbulbs started popping around me like mad when Nick stepped up for his speech – far more than for Chris. It was revealing, sitting there. This man plays it scruffy-natural-ordinary-person-liberal (“Gosh!”) but he knows how to pause mid-sentence for a photo op, and he knows how to meet one’s eye and address the journos directly. After a slightly (deliberately?) nervous start he gave a top speech and he knew it, and he was watching us know it. If he really did think I was a journalist of course, he must have been very encouraged to see that I kept breaking into applause. I can also confirm that he does move around at the podium – but on a front-back axis, rather than side-to-side, like a man who has set his running machine too fast. Someone needs to turn the running machine through ninety degrees and he’ll be as perfect a speechifier as there can be, certainly streets ahead of Broon and Macaroon.
Reservations: there were three malapropisms that I spotted, a habit which journalists will make play with. “Arrogance” when he meant “anger” (translated specially for Liberal Polemic), “authoritative” when he meant “authoritarian” and perhaps worst of all:
We are an internationalist party if we are nothing
You can transpose “or” for “if”, or “anything” for “nothing” according to preference. Still, we all clapped. We knew what he meant. Yes, it’s the sign of a friendly audience, but it’s also a testament to his empathy that he can make slips like that and still successfully get a point across. Watching Nick was like watching a great but nervy actor, in both the speech and the Q&A. There were moments when it was hanging in the air slightly, moments when the audience was holding its breath to see if he would come out with the right word, and there were undoubtedly moments where the good will of the audience saw him through. But you feel rewarded for your participatory efforts at the end.
The main contrast between the two last night was that Chris didn’t put any strain on the stress levels at all. From the moment he stepped up you knew you were in the hands of a master. Even though his speech was, for my money, less well underpinned by a good structure than Nick’s, his delivery was pure class and that made up for it. He told us what he thought and he told us why, something I have responded to right from the off. The reason he gets more applause than Nick, I now realise, is that his speeches are better and more conventionally timed for applause – twenty seconds, point made pause, applause, on continuous rotation. Nick will talk for forty seconds or more, feel his way to the end of his sentence, and sometimes the hard-hitting phrases have come in the middle of it, so that by the time you get to the end applause is no longer quite the thing.
In amongst the usual Chris stuff, there was a lovely touch I hadn’t heard before about liberties our grandparents fought for being given away, and I have found his emphasis on radicalism convincing from the beginning. It isn’t good enough to disbelieve him on the grounds that one’s conception of radicalism doesn’t fit the image of the man – the adjective “grey” gets bandied around about Chris, as if this precludes him from radicalism, and it’s tantamount to ageism. No shit, Sherlock, he’s got grey hair, that’s what happens to human beings. Surely we don’t want to go down the American route here?
He also made tactical points I’ve heard from him before that make good sense to me. In answer to a good question about younger people turning towards the Tories, he rightly identified it as partly a matter of style. This is why his radicalism stance is relevant. As a former journalist, he is well-placed to understand about memes and about generating an “everybody is talking about…” mood. On a related question about young people not voting, he correctly changed the question into one of more general apathy. There’s a lot of lazy-ass talk on the subject of the yoof vote, as if they are a weird and particular audience who need to be able to do everything via Facebook or they won’t bother. Chris doesn’t fall into that trap. If a party and its politics are relevant, then they’re relevant no matter how old you are.
Reservations: I felt Chris was slightly more inclined to waffle than Nick in the Q&A. I noticed yesterday when I was transcribing the online hustings (nearly done, Will!) that someone has taken Nick to one side and taught him the Two Points trick. Actually, it’s more commonly used as a Three Point trick. You can nearly always think of a main point and an ancillary point in answer to any question. And by the time you’ve got to the end of those, you’ve probably thought of a third point, and you’re done. So you always start by saying, “I have two/three points” and instantly your audience have a route map. As soon as Nick imposes a bit of structure on his ideas, however artificially (of course there are always more than two points to make about anything) he starts talking with real clarity. Chris has structure and clarity in spades usually, but it wasn’t on great display in the Q&A last night.
Second, oh for the love of god, those bloody limousines! Get rid of them! If I hear that one more time, or anything to do with herding any variety of professional from either of you I shall send in the People’s Republican Guard.
Third, and my only serious reservation about Chris: in his speech he said he made no apology for having based his campaign first and foremost on the environment. And nor should he, except for the tiny inconvenient detail that he hasn’t. He’s based it partly on Trident and public services, and partly on communication. I’m going to trot out my interpretation of all that school vouchers nonsense again because I increasingly think it’s the right one. He wasn’t trying to have a policy argument that baffled even the best-informed with its esotericism. He was trying (badly) to point out that Nick’s stance is often open to interpretation because of his communication style, and that in a party with as little press coverage as this, we can’t afford that kind of uncertainty. Last night he emphasised that no journalist would ever be in any doutb about what he thought. He’s right, and up until the Newsnight piece I would have written Nick off on this count alone. How I wish Chris had applied a little of this logic to his environmental emphasis. There is so much that is interesting to be said about how we take forward our brilliant environmental agenda – and a lot of it has been said by Nick. It’s Chris’ pet thing, and he’s the radical, as I’ve said before. Why hasn’t he been selling it proudly to us and to the occasionally slightly interested nation?
I’m still not decided. I started as Huhne-soft, got to self-identifying as a Huhnista, but Nick’s performance on Newsnight was superb and he was superb again at last night’s hustings. But actually I may just end up sticking a pin in the ballot paper because, having seen them in real life for the first time (aw, little me!) I am all the more convinced that, as Millennium would say, they are BOTH REALLY VERY GOOD!