I watched the “ITV leaders’ debate” last night, but on BBC News, because their feed of it was running a couple of seconds ahead of ITV itself. In the Twitter age, two seconds is a long time in politics. But I’m not going to argue that anyone in particular “won” – that would be futile, there was no prize on offer last night.
But we can say that Nicola Sturgeon did well, and her “emergence” gives the Westminster press someone new to talk about. You’d never guess she has been a Scottish minister for years, with a long record of failure and miscalculation. She “won” last night, if you follow the media consensus, which means either that voters are now more likely to vote Labour because they think she would make an impressive coalition partner for Miliband, or less likely to vote Labour because the rest of the UK would be over the barrel if she is a coalition partner with Miliband.
The likelihood is that the second of these propositions is closer to the truth, but if people start saying that then the election campaign is over, and the media will be redundant. Labour need not only to hang on to their base in Scotland to oust Cameron, but also to make gains in the rest of the UK. Neither of these things looks likely.
The polls have kept coming since the debate. Why a programme which was watched by less than a third of the TV-watching population should be expected to be so specially influential escapes me. The audience was smaller than for the 2010 series, the format chaotic (although Julie Etchingham did a good job, and did very little talking).
As a Tory, of course I’m pleased. Cameron got exactly what he wanted out of the show, competent, low-key, Prime Ministerial. He also produced the killer line of the show, to Ed Miliband on the NHS – “What about Mid Staffs?”. It made good TV, but it isn’t going to win an election on its own. Ed M’s startled gulp when Cameron mentioned Labour’s record on the NHS in Wales suggests he is worried about losing it, though.
I didn’t think there would be TV debates in the end, and the jumble of formats we’ve ended up with is a shambles for which we have to blame the broadcasters. The programmes we’re getting add nothing to the campaign, and do nothing to deepen engagement with the wider population Cameron was quite right to say that they “suck the life” out of the campaign.
Labour – and in particular Alastair Campbell on Twitter – have been constantly moaning about Cameron’s refusal to indulge in TV theatrics. It’s instructive to look back to the 1997 campaign. Tony Blair refused to get involved in debates, and Alastair Campbell helpfully recorded why in his diaries:
November 27th 1996:
“On the one hand, TB was good on TV and we should win easily enough. On the other, if we stayed ahead then bizarrely, it would be the Prime Minister, not TB, who had the underdog advantage. But my main concern was that with our media as it was, there would be an enormous focus on the process and packaging, and there was a danger it would add to the reasons why people were turning off politics and political presentation.”
Our media have scarecely been anything but “process and packaging” for some time.
March 16th 1997
“Though publicly we were in favour of a TV debate, privately the mood ranged from neutral to negative. The truth was John Major was now the underdog, the one with something to gain from being seen on a level playing field. Ridiculous but true.”
The only way Miliband was going to get anything out of last night was if Cameron had a crash, which he certainly didn’t. But it was a gamble Ed M had to hope would come off.
March 27th 97
“Then a buzz went round the gallery that the Tories had a massive story about us. The phones were going non-stop to see if we knew what it was. It turned out to be a briefing by Michael Dobbs saying that we were going to pull the plug on the TV debate. As expected, whenever there was bad news for them, they pulled out a TV debate story.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Labour have banged on so much about TV debates in 2015, with the 1997 roles reversed. Labour has had so little that is positive to say they’ve needed a diversionary tactic. Cameron’s position on TV debates has been consistent – it has always been Labour trying to make politics out of them, and the broadcasters who seem to think they are in charge of the election process. They aren’t, and God forbid they come to exercise any more power over politics.
I have no idea why Miliband has agreed to the format of the next debate, on April 16th, where he is going to get a thorough kicking from five of the other opposition parties (and again, inexplicably, the Northern Ireland parties are excluded). The broadcasters will love it. I don’t see how he can emerge from that format looking like the “best of the rest”, nor what good it does him to be seen as such. He is lowering himself as Labour leader to the level of parties a fraction of the size of his own – it’s amazing. This election is about who is in Downing Street, Cameron or Miliband. Nothing else should matter to him.
Miliband isn’t going to save any Scottish seats by going up against Sturgeon on TV – he is committing electoral suicide. Sturgeon is the authentic voice of Old Labour – “let the state do everything, and don’t worry about how it will be paid for just now”. The same is true of Leanne Wood, who seems to think that growth in the UK outside Wales is funded by government spending being denied to the people of Wales. Total garbage, and expensive garbage for most of us in the UK if either of them is in a coalition after May 7th.
I am annoyed at times at the tone of some Conservative language – talk about “locking in recovery”, for instance. We don’t want to lock ourselves in, we want to burst out into “broad sunlit uplands” of growth and prosperity. Has the failure to break through decisively in 2010 after such a sunny, modernising campaign damaged the thinking of some near the top of the party?
Everyone knows Miliband is weak and vacillatory. That message is well understood – now we need to remind voters what the positives of Tory policy are – growth, opportunity, better ways of delivering public services, better government. There are positive reasons to vote Conservative and return David Cameron to Downing Street, as well as good reasons not to want Ed Miliband in No. 10. They need to be heard more in the next few weeks in the Tory media message.