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15 April 2010

TV debates: the Tories have most to lose

Public will expect Cameron to thrive, and Brown to falter.

By James Macintyre

The more you think about David Cameron’s surprising intervention over the format of tonight’s televised debate, the more you wonder whether there are real nerves in the Tory camp.

Cameron has probably enjoyed the most positive media of any senior British politician in modern times. The public, such as it knows about him at all, must see a slick, smooth, articulate leader who can speak without notes.

Brown, meanwhile, is portrayed as a “bully”, as a “gruff”, “dour” Scot, as “tired”, “boring” and so on.

So how could anyone think that Brown has more to lose than Cameron in the hour-and-a-half-long spectacle this evening?

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Well, among others, Polly Toynbee, as it happens. Personally, I have the utmost respect for Polly. She is unusually substantial in her writing and principled in her values. But I have to differ with her on the warning she has just posted about Brown’s supposedly impending “car crash moment”.

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She begins by wondering — given that even Tony Blair didn’t face William Hague or Michael Howard in an equivalent event — why on earth Brown agreed to the debates at all. She nods to the fact that it is assumed that underdogs have more to gain, but then rebuts this by saying that several bookies have said they have not had a single bet on Brown coming out on top [note to self: get to a bookmaker’s before 20.30].

Polly goes on:

Labour is doing unexpectedly [not unexpectedly to all of us] better in this election because they are concentrating on the policy differences — and it’s working quite well. People do doubt whose side the same old Tories are on. “We’re all in this together” only reminds us that they are not. So why on earth did Gordon Brown agree to turn this into a presidential duel? We in the media love it. Labour may live to regret it.

So there we have it: expectations are very low indeed for Brown. Even those in the Prime Minister’s camp admit private worries, as Mehdi and I reported this week.

But given that Brown has so much less to lose than both other men (I won’t make the universally made point about this being the stuff of dreams for Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrats, except to point you to Andrew Grice’s excellent piece in the Independent today about how the debates usher in three party politics), is it possible that the Tory nerves are more justified than those on the Labour side?

After all, there is a chance, if he breaks up the format and turns, literally, to face Cameron and the supposed changes in the Tory party, and if Cameron falters as he very occasionally does during live TV, that Brown might come out of it intact.

Whisper it softly.

Follow the NS and friends during tonight’s debate here.