Chancellors debate or a WI meeting?
Well, if you were expecting blows traded toe to toe and the contenders battling for supremacy, think again. When the three candidates for the chancellor’s job met last night in debate on Channel 4 it was, at times, less a prize fight than a meeting of the WI.
Even Vince Cable noted the astonishing lack of conflict and openly called it a “love-in” calling for the parties to work more closely together.
This was no spectacle, it didn’t get ” down and dirty” and at times all three seemed to have used the same speech writer to get their message across. Caution was the order of the debate, there was remarkably little rancour and each seemed to put in a Herculean effort not to address the opposition.
That said tension did bubble to the surface at times in a slightly muted way, and when the would be chancellors’ did turn on each other it was mostly Darling and Cable attacking George Osborne. Osborne at times struggled to make himself heard. When he did attempt to get in after being assaulted he hesitated and was either spoken over or shut down by debate chairman Krishnan Guru-Murthy. Osborne was also the only one of the three who appeared to come close to losing his composure when Cable suggested his top tax priority was helping the rich. But rather than outright anger Osborne merely looked as if he’d just tasted lemon and salt on his corn flakes.
Osborne’s demeanor changed and his confidence seemed to grow once he was talking about bankers and the regulation needed to sort things out. Oddly he seemed at comfortable declaring what a bad lot they all were. That said it was Cable who won the attention when he quipped that that bankers were “pinstriped Scargills” – a reference to Arthur Scargil’s attempt to “hold the country to ransom” the Lib Dem said. It was the best soundbite of the night.
On policy Darling talked about “fairness” and protecting frontline services, Cable was the only one who talked about the detail of what would be cut to tackle the deficit while Osborne was keen to push his message that the future was about cuts and not tax rises and punishing people.
In the end much of the debate was about personality. Darling came across as solid, composed and on top of his brief. He never looked rattled. Remarkably, for all the lack of detail he left the impression that he had a clear idea about management of the deficit. He also made the best joke, teasing Osborne with the quip that stealing Tory policy on stamp duty was “cross party” cooperation. He said he had “tenacity” and judgment and a “sense of fairness”.
Cable looked thoughtful and sounded like he’d considered the issues in detail. Somehow he managed the peculiar trick of being willing to mix it while sounding slightly above it all at the same time. He was the only one who received any spontaneous applause – twice. It was the only thing that seemed to fluster him. He said he had anticipated the crisis and issued warnings about the housing bubble.
Cable also was the most damaging. In summing up he turned on the Tories declaring they had sold the country’s key assets and now they were helping their friends get their noses in the trough. He saved the most vicious and passionate statement for the end of the show. It made you wonder whether he could really work with the Tories in a coalition government.
Osborne struggled to impose himself and seemed to retreat at times in the face of Darling’s tactic to talk over him. He grew in stature on bankers and when he was talking about cutting National Insurance but they didn’t turn out to be the heavy weapons that some may have thought they would be. He claimed he had energy and new ideas, and that he would make difficult judgements rooted in values.That was one of the few hints of a philosophy underlying the policy.
That said in the format chosen by Channel 4, none of the candidates were pushed hard on their policy. The audience was not permitted to come back at the politicians and Guru-Murthy rarely challenged them except to move the subject matter on.
Interestingly, a straw poll of audience indicated the weight of support was for Cable before the show even started. Probably explains the applause.
We can now look forward to the prime ministerial debates. Let’s hope they’ve got some more life about them.