For first time, Britain listens to the candidates debate

The main candidates in the most hotly contested prime minister's race in generations engage each other in this nation's first ever U.S.-style television debate. In this clip the candidates debate crime in the U.K.
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 16, 2010

LONDON -- Britain staged its first U.S.-style televised campaign debate Thursday night, generating 90 minutes of engaging repartee that ended with the biggest underdog in the tightest prime minister's race in generations here emerging the apparent victor.

For the prime-time exchange, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the Labor Party incumbent, took to a stage in Manchester alongside Conservative Party front-runner David Cameron and Nicholas Clegg of the third-place Liberal Democrats. But Clegg's performance -- two viewers' polls showed him winning by a landslide -- raised the prospect that the three debates planned ahead of the May 6 election could give him the kind of boost H. Ross Perot initially received after facing down Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush in 1992.

Thursday's outcome underscored just how significant U.S.-style televised debates may prove to be in Britain. Though it remained unclear whether Clegg's performance would translate into a boost in the polls, observers said his apparent success heightened the chances that neither Labor nor the Conservatives will win an outright majority.

That, in turn, raised the chances of a hung Parliament, which could paralyze attempts to reduce Britain's massive deficit and boost the country's military presence in Afghanistan.

"Clegg stood out. He looked plausible as a leader," said Stanley Greenberg, a former campaign adviser to Clinton and former British prime minister Tony Blair. "The prospect is out there that this could really help him."

Billed as a historic political event, the debate attracted millions of viewers. The first 20 minutes proved uncharacteristically civil for a country where parliamentary debates can amount to verbal blood sport.

But the pace quickened rapidly, with Brown positioning himself as a known steward in times of economic crisis and Cameron claiming the mantle of agent of change. Brown doggedly attacked Cameron, portraying him and his party as elitist. Cameron took a less confrontational approach that gave him an edge over Brown in an ITV poll of 4,000 viewers conducted immediately after the debate ended. Yet the two men ended up in repeated tangles, cutting each other off on topics including immigration, crime, education, health care and Britain's military preparedness in Afghanistan. Aggressively questioning Cameron's position on crime, Brown quipped with a smile, "It's answer time, David."

Clegg played off the divisive front-runners, portraying himself as the real agent of change. "I'm here to persuade you that there is an alternative," he told the studio audience confidently.

There were strong echoes of U.S. debates -- with figures from all three parties quick to declare their candidate the champion and spin being fired out via Twitter and other sites even before the cameras began rolling.

No fewer than 76 rules were laid down, including strict time limits and a ban on jeers or applause from the audience. A panel of journalists selected the questions, which were put to the candidates by audience members.

The debates are seen as so key that Cameron and Brown have imported former Obama campaign advisers for prep work. But many observers had already focused on Clegg, whose Liberal Democrats -- considered to the left of Brown's Labor Party on many issues -- had about 20 percent support in polls before the debate, compared to Labor's 32 percent and the Conservatives' 38 percent. The debate could dramatically raise the profile of a man who still comes up second on a Google search to a real-estate agent of the same name.

For Brown, there was some risk entailed in becoming the first British prime minister to confront his political challengers in a live televised exchange, but his camp agreed to it because Labor has been trailing so badly in the polls. Privately, party leaders had tried to temper expectations for the temperamental Scotsman, advising him to keep his typically long, technical answers pithy. In fact, Brown landed some punches, as when he lambasted Cameron for his party's unwillingness to do away with the unelected-peer system and its plan to cut "waste" out of the budget as a sure way to spark a "double-dip recession."

Cameron, the baby-faced Conservative front-runner, had perhaps the most to lose. A single gaffe, observers said, could cost him a lead that has been dwindling for months. He conceded early Thursday to being "nervous," and on stage he displayed little of the bravado he is known for when he routinely attacks Brown during prime minister's question time in Parliament.

Observers said the jury was still out on the two front-runners' performances.

"I think Cameron looked the least comfortable in his body language, but no one made a huge mistake, and no one had a devastating one-liner," said Tony Travers, a political expert at the London School of Economics. "It is hard to tell still how this is going to affect voters. And there are still two more debates to go."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company