Democracy in action, but TV debates won't decide the election

The electorate’s familiarity with Nigel Farage might lessen the impact he makes when he appears on the TV debates

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Looking back on the televised debates that preceded the last general election provides a clue about the impact of being in power, which is not always positive.

Gordon Brown, the unpopular incumbent of No 10, sought to highlight his experience but only succeeded in reminding the audience of the mistakes he had made. David Cameron, the smooth PR man, failed quite to captivate but was just slick enough to confirm that he might be a PM in waiting. And then there was Nick Clegg, the man with whom everyone suddenly agreed: the fresh alternative to the traditional but tired parties of government.

On the surface, the debates were a revelation, a way to re-engage the public. Mr Clegg’s performances were hailed as presaging a major change to British politics. The subsequent formation of a governing coalition seemed to prove it. Not a revolution exactly but a turning point, duly televised.

The news that the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, has been invited to participate in one of the set-piece events planned for next spring makes a reconsideration of the 2010 debates apposite. And looking at them from a distance leads to the conclusion that such events – especially in the context of party political elections, as opposed to exceptional referendums – will rarely tell us much we do not already know. After all, by the time the party leaders come head to head, their manifestos for office have been laid down. Even their personalities are, by and large, well known.

Four years ago, the surprise was not that Nick Clegg came across as fresher and more politically fragrant than his rivals but that he performed with such eloquence. He caught the attention because, for once, he shared a platform from which he was not being jostled by raucous backbenchers or meddling interviewers. Articulacy gave his arguments a cutting edge; but the policies he presented were not startling and never could be.

Sure enough, when it came to polling day, the Cleggmania of April had given way to the prosaic economic realities which most often determine the outcome of general elections. The Liberal Democrats’ share of the vote barely budged. That they found themselves sharing office with the Conservatives was a quirk of the system, not a result of some glossy TV work.

Now the Lib Dems can no longer project themselves as the party of difference, untainted by the experience of power. The achievements of Mr Clegg and his colleagues might be quietly impressive but when it comes to easy rhetoric, there is nothing to match the position of the outsider. In this respect, Ukip has stolen a march on the Coalition’s junior partner much more than it has on the other parties.

Some will wonder why a party with just one MP should be involved in a high-profile debate at all. But with polls suggesting that Ukip has the support of a quarter of the electorate, the reality of its rise cannot be ignored (although the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP may reasonably suggest that clearer ground rules are needed before future debates are organised).

Yet if Mr Clegg at least had the advantage five years ago that many viewers had only heard him speak infrequently, that is one of the few boasts Nigel Farage cannot make. Consequently, there may be even less to learn this time around than in 2010. David, Ed and Nick will presumably endeavour not to agree too much with Nigel; a sizeable minority of viewers, persuaded by personality as much as policy, will nod fervently at his every utterance. But barring something extraordinary, past experience, limited though it may be, suggests the debates will not be the election’s deciding factor.