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.
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.