Pre-polls verdict on second leaders’ debate: Brown least stylish but most substantial
Meanwhile: Iraq amazingly left out of Sky News debate.
All three leaders in tonight's second 2010 general election debate on Sky News peformed strongly. That's the boring truth.
But to be fair, if you take a step back, Gordon Brown was the most substantial. Despite looking sharper with a new haircut, the Prime Minister said right from the start, in his surprisingly powerful opening statement, that if this election is to be about style then "count me out".
And he certainly lived up to the point, being the one leader, through no fault of his own, who thanks to blindness in one eye could not look directly into the camera, while some of his clearly preprepared lines simply didn't work.
One example was when he tried to emulate Nick Clegg's disassociation from the other two party leaders last week by saying that the Tory and Lib Dem leaders reminded him of "my two boys squabbling at bathtime" as they called for referendums on Europe.
Europe, indeed, started the show. Though Clegg and David Cameron played populist cards calling for referendums, albeit for very different reasons, Brown -- for once in his life -- sounded the most unashamedly and constructively pro-European politician in town, pointing out that jobs would be under threat with the kind of isolation that would be ushered in by Cameron's withdrawal from mainstream EU politics, about which, to the surprise of some, the Tory leader was not asked.
Likewise, on Afghanistan, the two opposition leaders tried to gang up on the Prime Minister over resources -- Clegg attempting to steal some of Cameron's clothes -- but Brown came across as the man of experience in the job and having to take the tough decisions. Brown appeared to score a perceived hit when he told Clegg to "get real". Even Cameron agreed.
There was then an interesting exchange about the Pope's impending visit, about which -- to be fair -- David Cameron was clearest and most impressive. He said that he welcomes the visit but disagrees with a number of elements of the Pope's agenda.
Overall, Brown tried to present Cameron as "anti-European" and Clegg as "anti-American". That didn't quite work, either, but voters may appreciate his pragmatic, apparently non-ideological approach.
*** Amazingly, Iraq did not come up. Why? See below.
When the debate moved on to domestic policy, Cameron was more aminated and deployed mock-anger, but Brown again came across as more substantial if more rugged and less slick. Cameron and Brown both tried to deliver knockout blows, but they failed.
Yet again immigration was brought up, and yet again Clegg disappointingly failed to make a positive case for it. Brown sought to trump Clegg by attacking his proposed amnesty on immigration, making out that one day all skills will come from within Britain. Unusually, Cameron was the only leader who was able to articulate something positive on the subject. Alas, his policy is the harshest: a cap. Brown came back in to boast about ID cards, ending another orgy of right-wingery.
On the final statements: Brown seemed strong, again, if not stylish, as he said that "the buck stops here" on Afghanistan and elsewhere. He was pretty strong in portraying Cameron as a "risk". Both Cameron and Clegg claimed that their opponents were spreading "fear", making out they were the "change" candidates. We'll see.
Cameron and Clegg have clearly decided that Brown is a toxic brand, as they refused to address him on first-name terms, unlike the Prime Minister with the others. But there is a chance they were wrong.
Brown came across as strongest on detail, most energetically concerned about the country's fortunes and most engaged on the substance. Clegg survived intact as a good performer -- he is very much in the game. Cameron was very considerably better than last week, but did he produce a sensational, game-changing performance? No.
*** Staggeringly, given that this was, primarily, the foreign affairs debate, Iraq was not raised. I am still reeling from this, because I have great respect for Sky News, which I regard as sharper than its rivals, mature and mercifully free of influence from its iniquitous owner, Rupert Murdoch. Tonight, however, I wonder -- against my instincts -- whether the big man did in fact make a call.
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