Alan Watkins: Clegg's soft touch will be hard to sustain

The Lib Dem leader's success in the first debate resembles an old-style third-party win in a by-election

Related Topics

From the acres of opinion on display on Friday, I seem to find myself in a minority of one. The "great debate" has been pronounced an outstanding success. Hardened political commentators journeyed all the way to Manchester for... for what exactly? They might just as well have watched the proceedings from the modest comfort of their own sitting rooms, as I did myself.

Indeed, I watched part of Coronation Street, with the sound turned down. The first time I have done so, on that previous occasion turned up, for about 20 years. I watch a good deal of Channel 4, but to the main ITV channel I give a wide berth. There it is.

For the commentating classes, where I am but a small cog in the machine, the question arises: what are we supposed to do with ourselves for the rest of the week? The younger and more enthusiastic element may attend press conferences and may even attempt to join a canvassing expedition, his or her efforts usually repulsed by the organisers. The more sedate among us confine our researches to Sky News.

There are now only two questions for the remaining days. How did Mr Nick Clegg, Mr David Cameron and Mr Gordon Brown "do" on Thursday? And how are these politicians likely to perform in their next encounter in a few days' time?

As there are to be three debates, the dynamics of these occasions (as learned people like to say), may change over days; or perhaps not.

Mr Clegg may still be full of confidence. Mr Cameron may inspire faith in his competence but not in his likeability. Mr Brown is doing the best he can in the circumstances. He has a trick of appearing to chew gum after making a particularly salient point. He smiles to himself. Of the three, it is Mr Brown who is taking the greatest risk.

Incumbent prime ministers always find an excuse for not appearing in front of the cameras on occasions of this kind. Mr Brown even tried out a joke. This was to the effect that Mr Cameron had done Mr Brown a favour by making him the subject of one of Lord Ashcroft's glossy covers. Or it was something like that. The story became mislaid in the telling.

My advice to Mr Brown would be: do not embark on a lengthy anecdote, especially one that involves Lord Ashcroft. No good can come of it. Similarly, quite pointed little anecdotes, based on school playgrounds, doctors' surgeries or what have you, have a habit of disappearing in the hands of any but the most skilled narrator, such as a professional comedian. I think perhaps American audiences are more receptive to stories, while the British variety are more resistant to pieces of folk wisdom.

Mr Cameron undoubtedly underwent some terrible experiences before the death of his son, as did his wife. There can be no doubt about that. Mr Cameron spoke movingly about the virtues of the National Health Service. Why then were the audience not more visibly moved? I do not think they were, though I may have been mistaken about that.

It would be irresponsible in the conscientious commentator to concentrate on Mr Cameron's words of wisdom of Thursday evening and to ignore his launch of the Conservative manifesto. He presents a nightmarish vision before the eyes of the active citizen. He or she is to be allowed hardly any rest.

From the school run at the crack of dawn to the staff meeting at the end of the day, there is to be a succession of assemblies of one sort or another. It is, to me, reminiscent of nothing so much as J J Rousseau's work The Social Contract, whose notion of the active citizen foretends some of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.

Mr Clegg seems to be a more relaxed kind of character. He clearly has no disposition to make friends with Mr Cameron. They may be forced to make an accommodation after 6 May, though my feeling is still that the Tories will have a majority.

For the moment, Mr Clegg might as well accept his good fortune. Mr Clegg turned Mr Brown's blandishments aside, as if he were a beautiful girl, who was rejecting the overtures of an ageing roué. Bother my head with that Gordon Brown! I have better things to do with my time, thank you very much.

Before the initial debate, the wisdom of the wise was that the Tories would pick up all kinds of seats from the Liberal Democrats. The current tally is 63, and the Conservatives foresaw small but perceptible gains. Labour, true, would be making losses of its own, but it would be a net gain for the Tories. Already the calculations have been thrown out of joint.

A possible comparison is with a by-election. The politicians on both sides take jolly good care not to hold a by-election when a general election is in prospect. It upsets too many settled expectations. A change to the Liberal Democrats or Nationalist representative has the effect of a small earthquake. The land sometimes returns to normal, sometimes not.

Politically, the effect of Mr Clegg's appearance on Thursday evening was the same as the effect of a Liberal Democrat win at a by-election. For many years there was almost a guaranteed supply of Liberal Democrat upsets. In later years, the supply was in danger of drying up. There is no comparable peril on 6 May. Mr Clegg can say: vote for me. There is bound to be a Liberal Democrat somewhere within easy reach. There may, however, be a touch of awkwardness in the second debate, on foreign affairs. Mr Charles Kennedy and his successor, Sir Menzies Campbell, succeeded in holding the line steady on Iraq.

But on Afghanistan there has been a certain amount of wobble. Certainly the historical origins of the two conflicts. Or, at any rate, it suited the purposes of liberal enlightenment to admit that the invasion of Iraq was an exercise in United States neo-conservatism, but to complain that the Afghan conflict was a virtuous war. Several enlightened persons fell for this line.

I blame Paddy Ashdown, for putting the Liberal Democrats behind the war in Afghanistan. I look forward to hearing similar questions addressed to Mr Clegg about matters of foreign policy.

So far, he has been cast in the role of Honest Nick. His expression of disgust – when Mr Cameron accused one of his Liberal Democrat backers with some of the party funds – had to be witnessed to be believed. The very idea! That was what Mr Clegg was trying to tell us. It was all cleared up, Mr Clegg averred. In fact it was not. The police are still pursuing their inquiries, or were when I last looked into the matter. Besides, Mr Clegg added, it was a long time ago.

Mr Clegg is adept at the soft answer that turneth away wrath. He does not have anything to teach Mr Cameron; still less poor Mr Brown, who chews gum even when he does not have anything to chew.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Shirley Shackleton, wife of late journalist Gregory Shackleton, sits next to the grave of the 'Balibo Five' in Jakarta, in 2010  

Letter from Asia: The battle for the truth behind five journalists’ deaths in Indonesia

Andrew Buncombe
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London