I’m not a political beast, but I am getting older and actually starting to act like a grown-up occasionally, so I do view this year’s general election as an important event and one that I should take seriously. So I tuned in last night to Channel 4’s Ask the Chancellor: a live debate/question time for the 3 main political parties: Alistair Darling (Labour and current Chancellor), Vince Cable (Lib Dem shadow chancellor) and George Osborne (Conservative shadow chancellor).
Channel 4 news started to grate almost immediately, as they went live to their studio to see the participants arrive. It looked so staged to see each of them arrive on their own. I would have expected to see at least one advisor hanging off each shoulder barking facts and figures and clever put-downs about the other parties into each ear. Instead we saw stilted arrivals and Vince Cable in a stupid hat.
Once the show actually started, I could almost see an aura of nerves around each of the candidates. Vince Cable appeared perhaps the most relaxed which is perhaps because he has nothing to lose from this exercise. Darling stood quite stiff, as if faced with a firing squad. Osborne looked like he needed to wring his hands out.
I like the format: specially selected audience members get to ask questions covering particular topics is not new, but Channel 4 did take the excellent decision to go for the full hour without a break.
Krishnan Guru-Murthy started proceedings and wasted no time in getting to the first question from the studio audience. The question was an absolute belter: “What personal qualities do you have that would make you a better chancellor than your counterparts?”
It seemed to immediately flummox everyone and they each stammered through pretty weak answers. Rather like at a job interview where you get asked where you see yourself in 5 years time and you rapidly try to compute what it is that the interviewer wants to hear and through some vague words around that as your answer. It has to be said Osborne’s was the most cringe-worthy, as he claimed that something that made him suitable was the fact he’d been watching other people do the job for 5 years. On that logic, I may find myself the next England football manager!
The questions continued to flow and Krishnan kept a tight rein on the participants for the first 15-20 minutes, but then let them slide into repeating themselves and general time wasting with flannel, until he reined them back in for the final 10 minutes.
Much comment has been made on Darling and Cable effectively tag-teaming Osborne, and I believe that Osborne and the Conservatives would have loved that. Because, as I’m sure all of the parties realise: perception is worth as much, if not more, than any direct questions being answered indirectly. As such, the fact that a clearly nervous Osborne stood firm against such tactics will most likely enable him to rise in a lot of viewer’s estimations.
So, in-keeping with this thought, rather than go through the questions and answers, I will pick out the perception forming moments of each of the candidates.
I actually thought he came out of this quite well. His high point was when he condescended to Osborne about some of Osborne’s own policies. In particular, I liked the way he almost sympathised with Osborne as he said “I really don’t understand why you have got yourself into that position”. He may as well have patted him on the head and told him to stick to his Fisherprice till and plastic money. Unfortunately, he got caught by a sucker punch from Osborne when he had to admit nicking a policy from him from a few years ago and even a quick-witted quip couldn’t gloss over the fact that it hurt him. Otherwise, he tried to walk a very fine line between being proud that he had been the Chancellor for the last 13 years and playing down that he had been Chancellor for the last 13 years. He focused very much on the last 2-3 years and how to get out of a recession, rather than the preceding 10 years that got us into that position. I also found that he always referred to the recession as a global issue, as though because it happened to everyone else, that was alright. He seldom showed much of a personality, although he did flash the odd look to Cable and Osborne during some of the exchanges that suggested to me he was beginning to enjoy this experience. He did come across as quite dour and stern, but generally that was because of an authoritative manner and seemingly an understanding of the gravitas with which the economy is seen by the public.
Osborne did well to keep his cool, especially when Cable and Darling rounded on him. He looked by far the most nervous of the 3 at the beginning, but he flourished when allowed to speak uninterrupted. He seemed to be the most briefed of the 3 and I did notice him hurriedly scribbling notes, I guess to prepare his retorts. His high point was when challenging Darling over the policy that Darling had lifted from him and also on his closing statement, when he really had seemed relaxed, as he stated that this was up to the public to change their country – a nice subtle way of declaring it is time for a change. He strikes me as someone with a bit of an unfortunate manner, whereby when he seems so eager to appear sincere he does not come across that way at all. He often made reference to the public’s money and seemed to want to speak for the everyman, but when he comes across as so upper-class, it is difficult to take seriously and at times seemed a little insulting. In particular, he appeared totally insincere when faced with the student who asked about the job market when she finishes her degree. Firstly, he referenced apprenticeship schemes which, to me, would not be suitable for a university graduate and then he spoke the most cringe-worthy line of the evening when he said to her “we wish you well”. It was delivered with a posture and pronouncement of someone who did not have a clue what to say. Talking hypothetically about the public and their money is one thing, but when faced with a real member of the public, he looked like he wanted to run a mile. He is unfortunate that the Tory Toff image sits so well with him, but I think the public will warm to him especially as he had to withstand the tag-teaming of Cable and Darling.
Cable played this game so well; I actually think it will attract voters. With the freedom of a man who knows he will never be Chancellor, he went for the (fairly) straight talking option and took more risks with his answers. I did feel that he spent too much time shooting down and nit-picking the other participants answers and track records. He also made the bold claim that he saw all of this recession stuff coming and that he had warned everybody about it. This may be true, but nobody likes a know-it-all, especially after the event. His high points were the laughs he got: when the 3 MPs were agreeing he called it a love-in and his comment about “pin-striped Scargills” will be his lasting memory. He also got the most applause – I can’t recollect either Darling or Osborne getting any. Cables performance was one where he generally took both Darling’s and Osborne’s policies to pieces without really offering up any of his own. His common sense attitude will go down well with the voters and his cynical attitude to the main 2 parties will also serve him well, as he adopted a similar stance of most of us watching in dismissing the MPs before us. Although I think that he overplayed it and became a little bit too self-satisfied with it. He did look on quite smugly when he delivered a line for a laugh. Having said that, he did not have any really bad moments, so I think he will be perceived by many as the main winner here. At a push, his reluctance to defend himself when Osborne pointed at him and said “this man will not become Chancellor” might be seen as a concession that the most the Lib Dems really want is a hung parliament. It also seemed that by siding with Darling against Osborne more often than with Osborne against Darling, the Lib Dems may have targeted Tory votes for their hung parliament dream.
Overall, the debate was a little weak and a little too well-mannered. There were chances for each of the participants to go for the throat, but they seemed far too preoccupied with preparing their own next statement to notice, let alone go for it.
The audience, or rather the selected members who asked their questions, were superb. Although, the show did seem to end on a bit of an anticlimax and a feeling that the usual MP waffle had filled the airwaves.
As a precursor to the PM live debates, it was a solid enough warm up act and it will be interesting to see if the impact made by any of these MPs will last until the fateful polling day. I suspect not…