In 2010, I was an adviser to Gordon Brown and I led the team that prepared for him the TV leadership debates. In rehearsals, Alastair Campbell would play David Cameron and I would play Nick Clegg. As Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson go through their final preparations, here are some of the things I will be looking out for.
Going into the debates, it is Jeremy Corbyn who has most to gain and Boris Johnson most to lose. Normally in those circumstances, you would expect the challenger to go on the attack and the frontrunner to rise above it but in this case the roles may be reversed. Johnson will want to skewer Labour for failing to back Brexit and terrify Tory voters into believing that if they do not turn out to vote then Corbyn will be prime minister.
One thing to watch out for with Johnson is that when he gets into attack mode he has a habit of enjoying himself a little too much and can sometimes lay it on too thick (see, for example, his comments about Corbyn’s “onanism”). Despite being ten points behind, Corbyn has said he will not respond in kind. Instead, he will hope that Johnson’s aggression and Labour’s popular policies are enough to remind Labour’s 2017 voters why they would prefer a Labour government rather than an Etonian bully.
When things are going badly for them, neither one is good at hiding how he feels. When I worked on Brown’s team in 2010, we spotted that David Cameron had such a “tell” and we encouraged Brown to look out for it. When Cameron gets flustered, his voice rises and his face reddens. If Brown saw that happening then he should double down on whatever line of argument he was taking. Meanwhile in the briefing room, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson were both ready and watching, so that they could turn the attention of the journalists in the spin room towards that sign of panic as soon as we saw it. Unfortunately for Labour, there were hardly any moments of Cameron panicking in those TV debates.
Corbyn’s tell is familiar to anyone who has watched many of his interviews. He gets a little snippy in response to questions he feels are designed to trap him: his eyebrows go down, his nostrils flare a little, he takes quick, short breaths, and his normally calm, mild tone sounds sharper and more cross as a result. Johnson literally winces at difficult questions and often in an exaggerated pantomime fashion.
Corbyn is generally a good listener, while Johnson is not. This is not so much a problem in the House of Commons but in a TV debate, the leaders each spend more time on screen listening rather than speaking. Johnson fidgets and makes faces while listening to other people, as if it were preposterous that an audience would want to listen to someone other than him. He can sometimes give the impression of a man who is Prime Minister merely because he craves the attention.
Both men are likely to have rehearsed almost every question that is thrown at them. In the 2010 debates, after four-and-a-half hours of cross-examination, there was only one question that we had not anticipated (one on the Pope, which Brown answered well). In 2010, it was hard to get Brown to stick to the lines. His natural inclination was to give substantive answers and defend his record. We had a set of messages that we had refined and tested in focus groups. Again and again, we would remind him that these were the precise notes he must hit. After each practise, we would count back to him how many times he had got it right. On this score, Johnson is better than Corbyn at sticking to his message. Expect to hear ‘oven-ready Brexit’ and ‘get Brexit done’ within the first three minutes.
Although the leaders will have spent a lot of time preparing their answers, it is their composure that creates the strongest impression upon viewers. Prime Ministers generally have bullet-proof self-confidence but even they have their moments of fragility. “Being a politician is a constant battle between ego and self-awareness,” a cabinet minister once told me. “And in the end, ego always wins.” The role of the debate teams today will be to try to keep those two forces balanced: too little self-confidence and their leader may perform badly, too much and they may appear arrogant.
Corbyn will have the important advantage of having done a prime ministerial leadership debate before. Even if this one-on-one format is new, Corbyn knows what the pressure is like and he can take confidence from experience. He also has nothing to lose.
Corbyn has one further big advantage over Brown in 2010: with no Jo Swinson, there will be no Cleggmania. It suits both men to pretend that the choice is only between them but even if neither goes terribly wrong, the sight of them bickering aimlessly, as they have done for months, may remind some viewers why they cannot vote for either of them.