The Leaders’ Debate – and the winner is…
Nick Clegg – and not by a whisker, but an entire head and shoulders.
It pains Cranmer to say it.
But His Grace is neither politically blind nor slavishly fawning to the Conservative Party.
It was not so much what Nick Clegg said (though there was much to commend it – like taking everyone who earns less that £10,000 out of income tax altogether). His sums may not have added up; his policies may have been ill-thought-out and some of his sentences poorly crafted. He may be accused of hypocrisy, acting, and even of lying. But he left the nation with a sense of what he is about.
And the nation has never before experienced a Liberal Democrat epiphany.
Unlike Gordon Brown, Mr Clegg possessed an easy charm and natural ability in front of the camera. In fact, his relaxed charisma often left David Cameron looking uptight. And he skillfully rebuffed every presumption of a Lib-Lab pact: Gordon Brown alluded numerous times to their common ground (on electoral reform, for example) in the hope of a pincer-like movement against Mr Cameron. But an indignant Mr Clegg was having none of it. He did not appear petulant, but sincere in his rebuttals: each time he was able to appeal to the audience about the interminable Tory-Labour conflagration, the more he sounded reasonable, credible, authentic – even prime ministerial.
The problem was that much of it sounded scripted. Of course, the set pieces were – the opening gambit and the closing statements had all the spontaneity of a Neighbours script, and the presentation was just as wooden. But even the responses to many of the undisclosed questions sounded pre-prepared, and it is a bad actor that cannot find the authenticity of reality in repeated performance. The debate sections were better, but often abruptly (even rather rudely) curtailed by Alastair Stewart, who did an appalling job as host. He barked out each leader’s name when he wanted them to speak, irrespective of the current speaker needing just five more words to complete a sentence.
An examination of a few details is revealing: in addition to looking decidedly awkward throughout, Gordon Brown was inaccurate and misleading on so many number levels that it is difficult to credit him with anthing from the night.
On Police numbers, Gordon Brown said: “The one thing I'm absolutely sure of, we have to maintain the number of police we have in this country.”
Fact: Police officer numbers are already being cut by Labour. Thirteen police forces have cut police officer numbers in the last five years (Home Affairs Select Committee, Police Service Strength, Fifth report of Session 2009-10, 19 January 2010). A leaked report for the Home Office, co-written by Mark Rowley, the Chief Constable of Surrey, has raised the prospect of 28,000 police officers being replaced by civilian workers to save money (The Daily Telegraph, 11 March 2010). And just four out of the 43 police forces in England and Wales say they plan to maintain current staffing levels (Home Affairs Select Committee, Police Service Strength, January 2010, Appendix A).
On Crime and the amount of time police spend on the beat, Gordon Brown said: “Police have to spend 80 per cent of their time now on the streets.”
Fact: The Advertising Standards Agency ruled illegal the Home Office advertisement that claimed: “You can now expect your neighbourhood police to spend at least 80 per cent of their time on the beat in your area” (The Guardian, 26 March 2010).
On Immigration exit controls, Gordon Brown said: When the Tories were in power they removed exit controls at the borders and got us into this mess.
Fact: This is simply untrue. The last Conservative Government stopped embarkation controls for EU citizens in 1994, in line with our obligations as an EU member. But in 1998 it was Labour who stopped them for people from the rest of the world, a policy which has resulted in porous borders and a sizeable illegal population.
On Immigration numbers, Gordon Brown said: “Net immigration is falling.”
Fact: The inflow of people coming to the UK actually increased as we went into recession, from 574,000 in 2007 to 590,000 in 2008. News Release: Emigration reaches record high in 2008, 26 November 2009).
On Health visitors, Gordon Brown said: “To help people live at home, to give them the urgent care needs that they have and see them met, for example by home helps and health visitors so that people who want to stay at home don't have to go into institutional care.”
Fact: The number of health visitors has been cut by 18 per cent since 2004 – which means almost 2,500 fewer staff (NHS workforce statistics, 25 March 2010). 29 per cent of health visitors report that caseloads are so large that they are losing track of vulnerable families (Amicus, Survey of Health Visitors, 2007).
On respect for the British military, Gordon Brown said: “Let me say first of all, my pride and my admiration for the armed forces.”
Fact: On 1 October 2007 with planning for a snap General Election at the front of his mind Gordon Brown flew to Iraq announced that 1,000 British troops would be withdrawn by Christmas. The small print later revealed that 500 of these had been announced earlier in the year, and 270 are already back in the UK (Gordon Brown’s Address to Reporters in Baghdad, 1 October 2007).
And Nick Clegg was not much better:
On Government waste, he said: ‘But let's not get obsessed about mythical savings in waste which is the oldest trick in the book.’
Fact: “Get better politics for less. Liberal Democrats would save this country nearly £2 billion by reforms that cut back waste in central government and the Houses of Parliament.” (Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2010, page 88)
Fact: The Lib Dems’ manifesto made big promises about cutting waste in the NHS: ‘So our first priority is to increase spending in some parts of the NHS by cutting waste in others. We have identified specific savings that can be made in management costs, bureaucracy and quangos, and we will reinvest that money back into the health care you need’ (p.40).
Nick Clegg further said: “These two constantly argue about waste as if we can create or fill the black hole in the public finances by saving money on paper clips and pot plants in Whitehall.”
Fact: Liberal Democrat pupil premium plans are based on cutting waste in the DCSF budget £415 million “cut education quangos and administration” and £355 million from “ending top-down education initiatives”. (Lib Dem Manifesto – pp. 100-101).
On Prison sentences, Nick Clegg said: “It's all very well to say these things but if what happens in practice is we produce these, as I say, colleges of crime where we have now, what, about 4,000 people going to e into our prisons or short term prison sentences, they sit around, they learn some extra tricks of the trade from some more experienced criminals and then they go out and nine out of ten of the young men on short term prison sentences just commit more crime.”
Fact: In 2008, the last year for which data is available, 58,076 people were sentenced to a prison term of six months or less (Ministry of Justice, Criminal Statistics 2008, Supplementary table S5Length). Under Liberal Democrat manifesto proposals for a presumption against prison sentences of less than six months, these people could instead receive community sentences. If Nick Clegg believes that the figure is 4,000 he has severely underestimated the number of people who would walk free under his plans.
Cranmer has already said that the worst thing about the debate was Alastair Stewart.
But the second worst thing was having to listen to George Osborne after the programme: he was adamant that David Cameron had won, that his man was relaxed and expert, and that his man looked and sounded prime ministerial. Whoever chose George Osborne to represent the Conservative Party in the post-debate section made a bad decision. Even in the face of the results of a spontaneous poll of 4000 undecided members of the public who declared by a significant majority that Nick Clegg had won, George Osborne was having none of it. He came across as arrogant, disingenuous and out of touch: he undermined the very credibility which David Cameron has spent the previous 90 minutes conveying.
This was a pity.
No doubt the Liberal Democrats will reap a few thousand more votes as a result of this debate, and a hung parliament looks a little more likely: indeed, Mr Clegg made the prospect sound rather attractive.
One must hope and pray that David Cameron performs better in the next.