Steve Richards: Were we duped by those TV debates?

Post-Diana Britain has a primitive side and needs idols. Nick Clegg had 'won' and parts of Britain went bonkers
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The Independent Online

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the first, historic, televised party leaders' debate and yet already the image of the three leaders standing behind podiums playing for the highest stakes seems far more distant. The 2010 election might as well have been held in 1066.

Gordon Brown was Prime Minister and has since disappeared from public view. As they walked on to the stage in Manchester, Nick Clegg was largely unknown to the wider public and is now Deputy Prime Minister, probably a topic of conversation in more households than he would wish. David Cameron was seen then as the likely commanding winner of the election and instead leads a coalition that manages to be strangely robust and fragile at the same time.

The fragility makes that televised image of the three leaders still relevant. The Coalition might not last the full term. The question of whether there should be more such debates might arise sooner rather than later. Of course, the arguments for 2015 are strong and familiar. Why would either side of the coalition want to pull out before then? But as the constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor pointed out this week, while the leaderships of both parties will almost certainly want to hug together until the end, the fate of coalitions is determined by restless, committed party members whom leaders cannot always control. I am told that Ed Miliband has switched from being convinced that the long haul was inevitable, to wondering whether an early election might occur. The former SDP leader, David Owen, a perceptive observer of the current political situation, told a conference recently that he thought an election within 18 months was possible.

What can we learn about the live televised debates from the safety of an anniversary, a calmer moment to reflect than the hysteria generated at the time? The current Coalition and the Heath government of the 1970s are both associated with U-turns. I am U-turning again in relation to the debates. In advance I was opposed to them. When they were broadcast I was exhilarated and impressed – peak- time politics largely unmediated and attracting big audiences, most of the issues debated and, at times, almost a hint of spontaneity when the three leaders interacted with each other.

In retrospect, I was right in the first place. The debates and the hysteria around them were a damaging distortion. There you go, more U-turns than Cameron in a state-owned forest.

The debates a year ago were defining events because they had to be. There were no other equivalent moments of theatre, although Mrs Duffy, who returned to the fray this week in another eerie reminder of the strange 2010 election, tried her best. Her questioning of Clegg a few days ago had an echo, but no more than that. Clegg coped well with the modern-day equivalent of an hour with Robin Day, the great much-missed interviewer of leaders in the 1970s and 1980s. Mrs Duffy apart, the debates dominated the campaign, as they will do next time and the time after that.

The dynamic of the first debate was stifling. It demanded a winner and an immediate verdict. The judgement was made, unavoidably, on performance rather than substance. By the time a campaign begins there are no surprises in relation to substance. Opposition leaders have announced their policies a hundred times. A government has also played all its policy cards long ago, the final ones displayed usually in a pre-election budget. There can be no more policy revelations. But we needed fresh revelatory drama from the debates. By "we" I mean the media, the viewers and the participants desperate to "win".

As a result, something very weird but wholly predictable happened a year ago. Clegg "won" because he was fresh and appeared "new" compared with the exhausted Brown and a familiar Cameron. His message also seemed to represent a new form of politics, when politics cannot be "new". Politics will always be a clash of ideas and egos, and demand of its leaders nightmarish decisions and compromise. Arguably coalitions, part of the new politics that Clegg espoused, make more Machiavellian demands on those that lead them. Nonetheless, Cleggmania erupted after the first debate. From Jeanette Winterton to disillusioned voters, there was near ecstasy. Sometimes Clegg is blamed for this. It was not his fault. Post-Diana Britain has a primitive side and needs idols. He had "won" and parts of Britain went bonkers.

For days, the campaign was transformed. The impact extended way beyond the following 24 hours. Opinion polls were broadcast as the debates drew to a close. On Twitter political journalists declared the winner within seconds. In a rush to meet deadlines, the next day's newspapers followed suit. By Monday, the focus was on the second debate and whether Clegg could pull it off again.

There are many practical consequences of this intense frenzy. As far as the rhythms of leadership are concerned, there is a strong case for a newish leader to avoid too high a profile in advance of an election. Clegg might as well have taken a holiday in the period from his election as leader of the Lib Dems to the first televised debate.

Ed Miliband must be tempted to do something similar to seem fresh and new when the electorate takes a look at the first debate of the next campaign. His decision not to rush into gimmicks that attract attention without meaning much seems highly sensible in such a context. Cameron and Clegg will seem even tireder and more familiar by the time of the next televised debate. How can they surprise and "win" in such a deadly context?

The focus on performance means that policy scrutiny was slightly less intense than usual last year. Somehow or other, Andrew Lansley's plans for the NHS escaped attention, even though he had said enough to at least hint at his revolutionary objective. This is not the fault of the debates alone. The poll tax escaped all scrutiny in the 1987 election campaign when there were no such televised events. There is no doubt, though, that in spite of the admirable focus on policy in the debates, form and performance were what mattered.

What would have happened if there had been no debates last time? Some senior Conservatives are convinced that Cameron would have won an overall majority. There would have been no Cleggmania, a big lift for the Lib Dems at the time but a problem for them now, dealing with the disillusionment that follows irrational worship. Perhaps Labour would have suffered more. The events created a false sense of a level playing field.

All elections are important. The next will be more important than most, as voters deliver their verdict on a peacetime Coalition, unprecedented spending cuts and a radical take on the role of the state. Televised debates would reduce these epic themes to a make-or-break theatrical performance. Will any leader dare to veto them? I doubt it. Miliband even contemplated proposing a debate between him and Cameron on electoral reform in the current referendum. The televised debates are here to stay, with more winners, losers, tweeting verdicts and blogs. Whatever happens over the next few years, no one can predict for sure the victor of the next election until we discover who has won the first debate.