First, it was refreshing to hear a political debate without the noise. I mean that not only with regards to PMQs, but to Question Time too.
I think there was substance in what all three leaders said, but precious little ideology. I was struck by how many of the policies seemed interchangable, as if one party only had the policy because they thought of it first. The only big policy differences that did seem to be based on ideology were Trident (where Clegg split with Cameron and Brown) and on taxes, where the old argument about rises and cuts seemed to play out unchanged since the 1970s.
The moderator Alastair Stewart was awkward when addressing the camera and audience. He was also annoying when moderating… but I actually think this was necessary, and a sign he did well. Only because Stewart was so firm, did he manage to minimise the constant talking over other people, and refusal to heed the chairman, that we see on Question Time.
There was surprisingly little snark. Brown tried a pre-written gag about smiling in election posters, and followed it up with a Lord Ashcroft dig at the Tories… but it fell flat.
I think Nick Clegg missed a trick, which was to ram home a point about judgement. As well as emphasising ideas, he should also have made more of the calls the the Liberal Democrat are acknowledged to have got right. I didn’t hear Vince Cable’s name mentioned, despite his prescience on the 2007/08 banking crisis. The public consensus is that the Lib Dems also got the call on the Iraq war right too, and Clegg could have reminded people about that (even though that issue was dealt with at the 2005 election).
Alll three men looked ‘Prime Ministerial’ and anyone who tells you otherwise is probably a partisan hack. But in a perverse way, I think the uniformity of the leaders reminded me of the crucial difference of the parties rank-and-file. The fact is that the Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat activists are different from their leaders, and very different to each other. It is these activists who will influence how the winning party(s) govern. In addition to these debates, which I think are healthy, this election also needs a greater examination of the parties’ underlying values too.
And how is the media analysing the event? Well, I’ve just turned back over to Newsnight and they were analysing whether or not Cameron and Brown made enough eye-contact, and how they choreographed shaking hands at the end: Pathetic. Now I am watching Michael Crick, presenting an ‘instapoll’, and giving an analysis of what other analysts say, a fine British example of what Jay Rosen calls ‘The Church of the Savvy’.