OK. A contentious proposition. The TV debates with which we are all enthralled are not setting the agenda of this election; they are simply confirming it. This is not to underplay their significance but it is important to understand their limits.
When the Conservatives conduct their post-mortems on this general election, many will conclude that his poor performance in the first debate and his agreement to Nick Clegg’s inclusion is what cost him victory. (Obviously, this is one of those posts that presumes he is not headed for an outright victory.)
However, this is to misunderstand the Conservatives’ problem. David Cameron is not in trouble because he lost the first debate. He lost the first debate because he was already in trouble. Mr Cameron – as Labour leaders never tire of pointing out – should have closed this deal months before the election was called. He had 18 months to win it and hasn’t done so. The reason Nick Clegg was able to nip in and steal the mantle of change is because Mr Cameron spent the last year trying to win the campaign without telling voters what he stands for and what he would do if he won. Without the debates, he might have got away with it but they have served to crystalise the doubts he failed to assuage over the last year or so.
Mr Clegg has indeed captured the floor with his debate performances and for his party they have been truly transformational. But before he could seize the opportunity so brilliantly, the opportunity had to be there in the first place. Had David Cameron convinced people that he was the the change, Nick Clegg would not have been able to run away with the first debate as he did. Barring a remarkable turnaround, David Cameron is facing a nasty backlash after polling day.
All of which brings us back to Gordon Brown’s strategy. As someone who follows politics with great interest, I found Mr Brown’s performances perfectly plausible – especially last night’s. We all know he struggles to connect with voters but we also know he can do the job. The question has always been whether the public is listening to him any more and the debates haven not helped him in this so far. But as we move towards the reality check moment – when people actually have to cast their votes – Labour is counting on him seeming to offer a solidity that suddenly seems reassuring. We are all the way back to his first slogan. Not Flash, Just Gordon.
This election so far has seemed like two electrifying moments preceeded by a week when all we had to talk about was the debate just past and the debates just coming. The astonishing lack of substance – in some ways manifested best by David Cameron’s presposterous claim that Labour’s National Insurance contributions rise represents the biggest threat to the recovery (you may not like the Labour policy but it’s hardly the ballgame).- has made the debates all the more central but also played to a TV format. Only Mr Clegg is offering both a vision of change and something approaching comprehensible set of policies which underpin it. Mr Cameron offers the vision without the policies; Mr Brown the policies with the vision. You may not like or agree with the Lib Dem platform but it exists and ticks both boxes.
The debates’ great service are to make plain to everyone what was already clear to those paying attention. They are framing the campaign rather than shaping it, which is probably a good thing if we don’t want an entirely X-factor politics.