Sky ready to push rules to the limit in round two of the leadership debates

Forced to occupy the centre-ground, Nick Clegg will find it more difficult to play the outsider in tonight's clash
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Indy Politics

Nick Clegg, quite evidently, feels perfectly comfortable on the left. But that's not necessarily because he harbours socialist instincts. When it comes to prime ministerial debates on television, his preference for the left is more positional than political.

By standing on the audience’s left, Clegg has been able to cast himself in his chosen role as the outsider, turning his left shoulder through 45 degrees to strike a confrontational pose towards his two rivals. And when the producers at the inaugural debate sought to capture the three leaders from the side, with Gordon Brown speaking in profile, there was the Liberal Democrat leader in the background, square on and looking down the camera.

The left was good for Nick Clegg but tonight in Bristol, at the second of these three scheduled verbal and visual contests, he must change his stance. Under the rules of engagement, Clegg and David Cameron must swap places according to the lots that were drawn at the end of February when the negotiations on the format for the debate were finalised by the broadcasters and political parties. At the insistence of Labour, the Prime Minister will stand on the audience’s right in all three debates, because he has no sight in his left eye following an injury sustained playing rugby as a child.

So, after his campaign-changing performance at the opening debate in Manchester, Clegg moves to the centre of the stage in every sense. For Chris Birkett, the executive editor of Sky News, which is staging tonight’s encounter, this is a happy state of affairs. “We go in with a plot, that’s our huge advantage,” he says.

Before the first debate was screened by ITV the consensus among the political spin doctors was that the central lectern, shoulder to shoulder with the Prime Minister, was the equivalent of pole position on the grid. “It was certainly felt beforehand that you want to be in the centre, given that Brown was on one of the edges, you wanted to be next to Brown,” says Birkett, who has been involved in the discussions with the political parties from the outset of the live debates project. “But given that Clegg has done so well from being on the left, maybe that’s changed.”

How will Clegg perform now that, physically at least, he is no longer the outsider? “The dynamics are different. It’s more difficult to attack two people when one is either side of you,” says Birkett. “For this debate the man who has moved into centre stage in the polls moves into centre stage of the debate, he is no longer the man on the edge, he’s the man in the middle.”

In an interview broadcast last night on BBC3, Clegg showed that he was aware of the potential for failure in this second debate, now that he no longer has to go in search of the spotlight. “It’s obvious what goes up can go down,” he said. “You can get a lot of hype around these things, so you know you’ve got to keep a sense of perspective.”

The impact on public interest in politics generated by the first debate has increased the stakes for the next two live debates. It has been a triumph for the medium of television in what some thought would be an election campaign decided by internet technology. Danny Cohen, the BBC3 controller, says the political parties, all of whom put their leaders forward to be interviewed by Dermot O’Leary in an attempt to engage with younger voters, have a reinvigorated sense of the influence of the small screen. “It has reminded everyone of the astonishing, unrivalled power of television,” he says. “Newspapers, magazines and the Internet have been covering politics and politicians for a long time, but nothing, it seems to me, has been as powerful as 90 minutes of television.”

Sky News has prepared for tonight’s showdown with four full rehearsals where one of the chief concerns has been the manner in which presenter Adam Boulton will interrupt speakers who over-run their allotted time. “We have tried sharp and we have tried gentle,” says Birkett. “I think you could say firm is the way that we will do it.”

That does not mean to say the Sky News political editor will automatically interrupt when time is up. “I think the moderation of a free flowing debate is the key element of the structure of these programmes,” says Birkett. “If an argument is developing in a certain way but might be overrunning on time then the opportunity within the framework of the rules is to catch up somewhere else. You don’t need to be strict on 20 seconds here, 20 seconds there. It’s about equal treatment of the parties across the whole of the debate.”

ITV’s Alastair Stewart took a stricter stance on timing, and quickly stepped in to prevent over-running. He also addressed the party leaders standing up, whereas Boulton will be sat in front of them. “It’s more intimate, he’s right in front of them, slightly looking up,” says Birkett.

Although some had feared that the 76 rules which govern these debates would ensure a sterile affair before an audience forbidden from applauding the speakers. Birkett denies this, citing as evidence a recent Sky News live debate on Wales, in which the audience were allowed to respond. “Compared to last week’s [ITV] debate, the leaders didn’t debate with each other but with the audience, which isn’t actually what we were trying to do. If you want that you can watch Question Time every week.”

The changing dynamics in the polls increase the likelihood of two leaders ganging up on the third. “Labour won’t gang up on the LibDems, they’re quite happy,” Birkett predicts. “If there is ganging up it will be the Lib Dems and Labour on the Tories. But that’s entirely a question for the strategists on the parties.”

Whereas ITV was allocated home affairs for the specialist half of its debate, Sky News has drawn foreign affairs. Most of the questions to be put to the leaders will come from a selection of 7,000 submitted by the network’s television and online audience. Members of the audience arriving in Bristol will have a final chance to suggest a topic. Although Afghanistan and immigration were subjects addressed in the ITV debate, Birkett is sure those issues will be raised again, along with discussion of Europe, Iran, Britain’s relationship with the United States and international development. Climate change is also deemed a foreign affairs issue.

The Sky News debate will further differ from the ITV production by virtue of having an entire day’s build up of related programmes, beginning at 6am. Birkett compares the intensity of the coverage to that once devoted to the FA Cup Final. “I grew up as a kid getting up at the crack of dawn on Cup Final day watching the build up from breakfast time through to Cup Final Match of the day at the end,” he says. “Our whole channel is coming from Bristol on the day of the debate – beginning with Eamonn Holmes at 6am and going through all our programming; Dermot Murnaghan, Kay Burley, Jeremy Thompson, the entire presentation team reporting form different locations in the city.”

In line with Wembley traditions, the leaders will be shown arriving at the venue and then coming out of the dressing rooms to take their position on the field of play. “We can give the debate a contextual treatment in terms of build up and analysis that they were unable to do on ITV because it’s locked into a schedule of multi-genre programming.”

Tonight’s debate will be shown not just on Sky but (with the satellite channel’s studio branding) on the BBC News Channel and BBC World. It will also be repeated on BBC2 after Newsnight, broadcast live to listeners of Radio4 and the World Service, and streamed for viewing on iPhone. “You can watch it standing at the bus stop, you don’t have to be near a TV,” says Birkett, who is nonetheless unconvinced that the broadcast will generate a larger audience than the 9.4m who tuned in to the first debate. “I’d be delighted, but if I’m honest ITV can deliver a large terrestrial audience after Coronation Street.”

This time it will be Gordon Brown and not Nick Clegg who is the first politician to speak and the new man in the middle must wait his turn. If the Liberal Democrat leader proves to be a less convincing act when stood at the central lectern it will provide a headache for the BBC as it prepares to stage the final debate, hosted by David Dimbleby. The Lib Dems and the Conservatives might then be squabbling over positions. Because if David Cameron, finds himself being double tackled by Brown and Clegg this evening, yet puts in a blinding performance from the wing, then even the Tory leader might take the view that it’s better to be on the left.

Specialist advice for tonight's sparring

David Cameron, by Tim Montgomerie

At least for the moment, Nick Clegg has transformed public opinion. He did it with 90 minutes of prime time TV and despite Fleet Street. Post-debate momentum overwhelmed the commentators. Many voters already think they know David Cameron but it's also true that about half of voters are yet to make up their minds as to who'll they vote for. That openness is unprecedented for this stage of a general election campaign. The Sky debate is mainly about foreign policy, and Mr Cameron will need to bash Gordon Brown on his underfunding of the military and bash Nick Clegg for wanting to leave Britain without a nuclear defence in a dangerous world. The overall strategy for Mr Cameron, however, must involve two things. First, he must define what 'change' means. For example, he must tell viewers that a Conservative government will cap immigration, freeze council tax and provide drugs to cancer care sufferers from day one. Second, he must contrast his positive vision with the danger of a hung parliament that won't deliver anything quickly. The election is not just a choice between Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg or Mr Cameron and Mr Brown, but between certainty and risk. It's a choice between guaranteed change and the possibility that the Liberal Democrats will keep Labour in power.

Tim Montgomerie is the editor of 'ConservativeHome'

Nick Clegg, by Mark Littlewood

Team Clegg's preparation, his demeanour and delivery in last Thursday's first bout all paid off handsomely and there is no reason to believe it will be changed for the rematch. But now the Lib Dems would be wise to focus more on a tight defensive strategy. Rather than Mr Cameron and Mr Brown asserting that they agree with "Nick", even when they don't, really – this time they are likely to insist they disagree with him, even if the disagreements on policy are mere nuances.

Tonight, the Liberal Democrat leader will find that his easy rhetoric will be met with intense cross-examination, not a warm embrace. Last week, he was able to assert that his party was serious and honest about tackling public spending – without being pressed on the modesty of the cuts actually advocated in his manifesto.

He will find, this time, that he is called upon to provide more specific prescriptions. Particularly with regard to Trident and Britain's relationship with the European Union, Mr Clegg will need to explain what he is in favour of – not merely what he is against. Mr Cameron will, of course, be able to argue that his two opponents effectively colluded to deny the British people a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty – and the Liberal Democrat response to this is fiendishly hard to encapsulate in a soundbite (or, in fact, to explain at all). Finally, he will go into tonight's debate perceived as the heavy favourite rather than as a plucky underdog. His spin doctors will therefore be simultaneously seeking to lower expectations while trying to retain momentum. That's a very tough balance to strike.

Mark Littlewood is director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs. He was head of media for the Liberal Democrats from 2004 to 2007.

Gordon Brown, by Lance Price

Gordon Brown told The Independent yesterday that he didn't plan any change of tactics. 'I will be me. I will be myself,' he said. That is undoubtedly the right approach. He should have the confidence to play to his strengths.

Being ‘me’ does not sit comfortably with the kind of cosying up to the Liberal Democrats that he has been doing in recent days. Having practiced the old politics for so long, Brown cannot be a convincing advocate of the new. Leave that to Lord Adonis and the Milibands. From Brown it just sounds false and even desperate.

Tonight, he must represent strength and experience in a dangerous world. Quiet, understated authority would set the right tone in a discussion about terrorism, rogue states and nuclear proliferation. On Europe, pragmatism and realism would look sensible compared to Mr Cameron's ideological euro-scepticism and Mr Clegg's idealistic dreams of a kind of EU that does not exist. Without disowning the war, he can fairly remind us that he brought the troops out of Iraq. Without underestimating the challenges, he can say that his Government doesn't believe in a solely military solution in Afghanistan. On overseas aid and debt relief, the others can talk but he has delivered.

So Mr Brown should stand his own ground and hold his head up. On each cuff he should write his two best soundbites of recent times. "The future can be progressive or it can be Conservative, it cannot be both" and "This is no time for a novice". And, if he's tempted to lapse into pseudo-LibDemmery, then: "We are best when we are Labour."

If his mood is defeatist he will look defeated. His own party workers are looking for leadership and an expression of the kind of confidence they have to show on the doorsteps. So, no more "I agree with Nick".

How about, "If David and Nick are honest they will agree that my government has protected Britain's security, protected the British economy and protected British jobs." Look them in the eye and believe in yourself. And stick to being "me".

Lance Price is a former media adviser at No 10 and author of Where Power Lies