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11 April 2010

Debate week: What Gordon Brown must do

Finally accept Cameron is formidable opponent, and turn on him

By James Macintyre

So it’s the week of the first general election debate, which kicks off on Thursday on ITV. Surreally but strangely appropriately, the first of three debates will begin with a statement by Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, in what is the stuff of dreams for the third most popular party in the UK.

But although the Lib Dems are gaining support, in part thanks to their shadow chancellor Vince Cable, who really does seem to have won over swathes of ordinary people, much of the attention will be on the exchanges between Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

Brown has been preparing for the debates with key insiders, including Douglas Alexander, the articulate election coordinator. He will need to be on form against a Tory leader who many expect not to slip up. He will also need to come at the debates with a different approach.

It is said that by the time Brown became prime minister in 2007, Brown was dismayed that — in contrast to Tony Blair — he had to face a formidable media performer for Tory leader. And after his initial bounce that summer, Brown has reacted to Cameron’s growing support by largely ignoring Cameron. Yes, he has in recent months taken to mocking the Tory leader’s lack of policy grip, but for a long time he was, according to some, “in denial” about him and often refused to mention him by name. To Brown, Cameron’s rise may have been another piece of bad luck in what has — at times — been a deeply unlucky career.

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But now all that has to change. Brown, if he is to make any kind of impact in these debates, cannot just rely on his mantra about “protecting the recovery”. He needs to take a deep breath, accept that Cameron is a serious opponent who most in the media expect to win the general election and deprive him of the mandate he craves. And he needs, after that, to turn his full armoury on Cameron.

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The format of the debates means they will be dominated by questions from the audience and presenters. But live TV is live TV, the secret of which is that you can — actually — do what you want. So Brown should break up the format — “mixing things up” we used to call it in telly — and turn, literally, and face Cameron. He should link the personal with the policy by challenging Cameron on how — if at all — he has changed his party. Has he changed on Europe (yes, by going to the right)? Has he changed on tax (no — except to bolster the very rich through inheritence tax cuts)? Has he changed on immigration (no). And so on. In short, Cameron says he has taken the Tory party on a journey; from where to where?

On April 1, the Guardian produced a spoof story — which for the first par or two at least had a certain plausibility — about a new Brown strategy of getting tough on Cameron.

It began:

In an audacious new election strategy, Labour is set to embrace Gordon Brown’s reputation for anger and physical aggression, presenting the prime minister as a hard man, unafraid of confrontation, who is willing to take on David Cameron in “a bare-knuckle fistfight for the future of Britain”, the Guardian has learned.

Following months of allegations about Brown’s explosive outbursts and bullying, Downing Street will seize the initiative this week with a national billboard campaign portraying him as “a sort of Dirty Harry figure”, in the words of a senior aide. One poster shows a glowering Brown alongside the caption “Step outside, posh boy,” while another asks “Do you want some of this?”

Now, clearly the class stuff isn’t going to work. But Brown should think seriously about emulating the idea of being “unafraid of confrontation” and “a bare-knuckle fistfight for the future of Britain”.

After all, it’s now or never.