Can Brown pull off an unexpected victory tonight?

The Labour leader’s got to get personal and emotional, not numerical and statistical.

Polly Toynbee, over at CiF, thinks tonight's going to be "Gordon Brown's car-crash TV moment". I'm torn over whether I agree.

I admit it doesn't look good for Gordo, as even Labour strategists and cabinet ministers admitted to James and me, in our column for the magazine this week. And it's difficult to disagree with Neil Kinnock's description of our premier as having a "face for radio".

But, having said that, I do think Brown has the opportunity to carve out a niche for himself as the safe pair of hands. One of his close allies tells me he's confident that the public might warm to "solid, reliable Gordon", as opposed to the "illusionist" and "charmer" Cameron.

And one of the papers this morning refers to Tory fears that Brown may succeed in coming across as a "father of the nation" figure. Indeed, he might. Given that he's facing TweedleCam and TweedleClegg, the two near-identical, posh, young brothers, Brown might get brownie points just for turning up and looking and sounding different. Remember: as most of the polls showed during the "bullying" row, the public don't hate or dislike Brown as much as residents of the Westminster political-media bubble do.

The Brown ally also reminds me that his man has been answering questions in the Commons for the past 13 years -- three as Prime Minister, ten as chancellor (a period during which he outlasted six Tory shadows at the despatch box). Cameron, on the other hand, has never had to answer questions in parliament and has been given more or less a free pass by our Tory-dominated press.

And we know he doesn't like answering questions. Ask Sky's Joey Jones. Or Jeremy Paxman -- the man he's been running away from this week. (Oh, Jonathan Freedland also has a couple of questions he wants Alastair Stewart to put to the Conservative leader. And as it's a "home affairs" debate, I'd ask Cameron how many houses he owns.)

So what's the big danger for Brown? If he reverts to robot mode, he's toast. He can't afford to be the over-serious, dour, professorial, number-crunching statistician that he often becomes in TV interviews and press conferences.

Look what happened to Al Gore in 2000. Despite being the more experienced, more intelligent and more qualified of the two candidates, it was George W Bush, the multimillionaire Republican candidate and ex-oilman, the son of a former president, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, who won over voters by shamelessly but successfully playing the "man of the people" card during that controversial campaign -- especially in the presidential debates.

Tonight, "Dave" Cameron, of Old Etonian/Bullingdon Club fame, will be trying to play the same card. God help us.

I only hope that Brown's people have been reading Drew Westen's The Political Brain. Here is Westen's take:

If you start with false premises about how the mind of the voter works, you can reason your way to a concession speech. You can watch precisely how Michael Dukakis and Al Gore did that here. They listed all their best facts and figures, their positions and policy statements, their 17-point plans for every issue. Their goal was to convince voters that they had the most to offer -- in the language of economics, that they offered the greatest marginal utility. Perhaps they would have won if everyone were Alan Greenspan (although even Greenspan got emotional about irrational exuberance).

When asked about his Medicare plan in the first presidential debate against George Bush in 2000, Al Gore responded, "Under the governor's plan, if you kept the same fee for service that you have now under Medicare, your premiums would go up by between 18 per cent and 47 per cent, and that is the study of the Congressional plan that he's modelled his proposal on by the Medicare actuaries."

Voters didn't need to know exact percentages. Most didn't know what an actuary was, and if they did, they probably wouldn't like one. All Gore needed to say, with the appropriate intonation to make the point hit home (and home is where the heart is), was, "Under the governor's plan, your rates will go up by about a third. That's a lot of money, especially if you're on a fixed income. That's not how we should be treating our parents and grandparents. That's not why I call 'family values.' "

Nor did either the Gore or Kerry campaigns effectively take on the character attacks launched at them by the Bush campaign. Like Dukakis, who was talking about jobs while being beaten to death by Willie Horton, they didn't seem to recognise that when the other side is telling a story about you that people are starting to believe, you'd better drop everything and offer a compelling counter-narrative -- and preferably a compelling story about the storyteller. That two Democrats let George W Bush make character an issue about them without ever turning his history of impulsivity, recklessness, drunkenness, investigation for insider trading, and draft evasion while cheerleading for the Vietnam war (not to mention his cheerleading at Yale -- not exactly a great visual image for a presidential nominee) into a voting issue speaks volumes about the way our party's leading strategists tend to understand the mind of the voter.

That's Westen's shrewd counsel.

My own humble advice to the Prime Minister tonight: break one of the 76 rules. Do something spontaneous. Emote. Turn and face Cameron. Take a risk. The audience might like you for it. And you've got very little to lose.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder