Alex Massie

Debates! Brown vs Cameron vs Clegg! Hold Your Excitement Please...

Text settings

I don't pay enough attention to the Liberal Democrats to be certain about this but today may have been Nick Clegg's best day as leader. The announcement that there will be not one but, god help us, three debates between Gordon Brown and David Cameron and that Clegg has been invited to participate as an equal partner in each of them is a triumph for the Lid Dem leader. He is the obvious benficiary of this precedent-setting agreement, not least because, in addition to granting him equal billing, he'll be able, if he has any wit about him at all, to play Cameron off against Brown and vice versa, presenting himself as the least unacceptable choice available.

Tim Montgomerie doesn't like this, not just for reasons of party advantage. Clearly only a weak Prime Minister would agree to such a contest and, in that sense, it's an admission that Brown appreciates the depth of the hole he's in. From that perspective, Montgomerie is correct: Cameron should have emulated Blair in 1992 and nixed the notion sharpish.

Officially, of course, everyone is welcoming the debates because they're being spun as a means of "enhancing democracy". What this really means is that they're events that are great fun for the political and, in particular, the media classes. Whether they will really make much of a difference is a different matter. (The idea that they're inappropriate given the nature of our parliamentary system is, alas, too quaint for words. That horse died long ago. That said, the debates do mark a further Presidentialisation of British politics and, consequently, will contribute to the undermining, not enhancement, of parliament. But never mind that!)

How important will they be? Novelty alone will provide for interest and, on this occasion, make them count for more than similar contests are likely to in future elections. But the truth is that most people make up their minds well before election day and well before the campaign "officially" starts. (Incidentally, if these debates are all going to take place during the official campaign then there will be, to all intents and purposes, no other campaign at all. Does this "enhance" democracy? Only maybe.)

This chart comparing polling averages from the six days before and the seven days after recent US Presidential debates suggests that they're not necessarily the game-changing events some people think they may be:

Some movement, as you can see, but shifts that, I think, often actually confirm or mildly accelerate pre-existing trends. For instance: Al Gore was a hopeless campaigner; George W Bush a better debater than he's sometimes given credit for. If polling is the way one measures "winning" then Bush won five of his six debates - though, of course - he was very poor in his first tussle with John Kerry.

For that matter, 1988's debates confirmed voters' pre-existing sense that Michael Dukakis was hopeless; but in general one may say that 2000 was an outlier amongst recent elections - not just because it was close but because the debates really did help Dubya "seal the deal". 

Like Dubya in 2000, Obama was able to use the debates to confirm that he could "seem" Presidential. But our system is rather different: Cameron has a much, much higher media profile than any Presidential challenger who, most often, has only been on the national scene for a few months. (Most voters in most states don't pay very much attention to the primaries and only start to care, in as much as they ever do, around the time of the conventions.) Similarly, Brown has been with us for 13 years in government and several more before that as a high-profile member of the opposition. The chance that either man will fundamentally, or even at the margin, change the way he's perceived must be considered slim. Barring some monumental blunder, that is.

Which is another way of demonstrating what a great day this is for the Liberal Democrats. Hands-up if you know very much about Nick Clegg? Precisely. These debates are the best thing for the Lib Dems in, well, decades.  Barring disaster, Clegg's numbers can only go up. Barring blunders neither Brown's nor Cameron's are likely to shift very much at all. I think. In theory. Perhaps.

Anyway, while fun, it's not likely that many voters will really learn very much about very many things that actually are very important. If you think otherwise might I suggest you watch the film of recent American presidential debates? Sure, novelty will make these contests seem terribly interesting and important and they'll be a fixture in future campaigns too but the more of these things there are the less impressive they're likely to seem. That won't prevet us from treating them as though they're Bigger Than Anything That's Ever Happened Before. Because what would be the fun in that?

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articlePoliticswestminster