Britain's debate: lively, substantive, revealing

By Dan Balz
Washington Post staff writer
Friday, April 16, 2010; 11:45 AM

People overseas often lament the Americanization of their politics, but Thursday's introduction of presidential-style debates in Britain ought to put some of those complaints to rest. The first televised debate in the history of British election campaigns was lively, substantive and revealing.

The three candidates -- Prime Minister and Labor Party leader Gordon Brown, Conservative Party leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg -- have tangled regularly during the weekly Prime Minister's Questions in Parliament.

But put before an audience of voters in a television studio, rather than in the midst of braying politicians in the House of Commons, their demeanor changed quickly. Insults were kept to a minimum. Camera readiness took on new significance. Seizing the moment proved critical.

The election is one of the most closely contested and important in Britain in many years -- polls suggest it could result in a hung Parliament. After 13 years in power, the longest in its history, the Labor Party faces rejection. Brown, who inherited the prime minister's job when Tony Blair stepped down after 10 years in office, is desperately trying to avoid being turned out of office without ever having been elected.

The Conservative Party, which dominated British politics for much of the 20th century, is attempting to rebound after a long period in the wilderness. Cameron, selected as party leader almost five years ago, has tried to remake the party's image as more tolerant and compassionate, seeking to move beyond the era of Margaret Thatcher. But the big lead his party once enjoyed has largely disappeared.

Clegg is the wild card, as third-party candidates often become. He seemingly has little chance to become prime minister, as his party continues to run behind Labor and the Tories. But he could be the spoiler in the election -- and potentially a kingmaker if neither of the other parties wins a majority of seats in the next Parliament.

But in Thursday's debate, Clegg broke through in ways that neither of his two rivals could. In the short-term, he will be the story of the campaign.

Brown's knowledge of government is deep and detailed after three years as prime minister and a decade as chancellor of the exchequer -- the equivalent of treasury secretary in the United States but a role in which he assumed virtual control over domestic policy under Blair. His expertise showed on Thursday. He was in command of his brief through much of the debate.

But Brown also came into the debate very much on the defensive, and therefore tried to take the fight to Cameron at every opportunity. He tried to bait the Tory leader on the economy and the deficit and spending, seeking to punch holes in Cameron's platform and demeanor. At one point, in a reference to their weekly engagements in Parliament, Brown said, "This isn't Question Time, it's answer time, David."

Brown has a difficult case to make. He is the least personable of the three, and his message is to promise both continuity and change. Brown won plaudits last year for his handling of the economic meltdown. His argument to British voters Thursday night was: do not risk changing governments at a still-precarious point in the economic recovery. Conservative policies, he warned, could bring a double-dip recession, while Labor would assure a steady and sustained recovery.

"This is no ordinary election," he said. "This is the defining year."

But for every problem the people in the audience asked about -- all questions initially came from the audience, but moderator Alastair Stewart of Britain's ITN did an admirable job of directing traffic and keeping the candidates on their marks -- Brown tried to explain that Labor had new policies, new commitments and new ideas to deal with them.

To combat voters' disgust with their government, he has promised wholesale reforms. As Cameron and Clegg asked at different points, if Labor has had 13 years to do something about these problems, why is Brown suddenly embracing new ideas?

The youthful Cameron has a more natural style on television than Brown and sought to stay positive in the face of Brown's attacks. "Choose hope over fear," he said in his close.

If the Conservative Party is, as Brown repeatedly said, a party that would cut health, education and law enforcement, Cameron does not have the sharp edges or mean-spirited personality to go with it. Still, he was forced to dodge again and again as Brown tried to pin him down on how much the Conservatives would try to cut spending from a budget that has a huge deficit.

For Cameron, the debates provide the platform to make people feel comfortable that he is ready to lead the country, much the same as the U.S. debates in 2008 gave President Obama that opportunity. By that measure, Cameron probably succeeded.

Where Cameron failed was in making himself the clear candidate of change. The Conservatives have struggled as the election has come closer. The deficit is a clear and present danger to Britain, but an aggressive policy to cut spending plays against the image of the kinder-gentler party that Cameron has sought to create.

Throughout the 90-minute debate, Cameron missed opportunities to make the case for why Labor does not deserve another term in power. Whether tentative in outlining exactly what those changes would mean or simply determined to try to rebut Brown's challenges, Cameron needed a break-out performance to boost his party's standing in the polls and avoid the fate of running first but without a clear majority.

Clegg's performance was reminiscent of Ross Perot in the first general election debate in 1992 as he took advantage of the platform the debates offered. Throughout the night, he cast himself as the antidote to the old politics and as the candidate who represents the clearest change. His party is more centrist than the other two and stands to the left of Labor on national security issues.

In his opening statement, Clegg said he hoped to show that there was more than a choice between two parties "who have been running things for years." He added, "I'm here to persuade you there is an alternative . . . a fantastic opportunity to do things differently for once."

He repeated that message throughout the debate, ending the evening by saying, "We can rise to the challenges if we say no to the old parties and yes to something new."

Brown repeatedly sought to associate himself with Clegg, trying to position Cameron as the odd man out among the three. But Clegg nicely avoided the bear hug that Brown kept trying to wrap around him.

Clegg also benefits from the same kind of voter revulsion toward politics as usual that is so evident in the United States this year. Britain has gone through an embarrassing scandal involving widespread abuse of expense accounts by members of Parliament, and all politicians are on the defensive.

Instant polls showed Clegg the clear winner. Three-fifths of those questioned by Populous for The Times newspaper declared him the victor, compared to 22 percent for Cameron and 17 percent for Brown. A YouGov poll for the Telegraph showed that 45 percent said he won, with 41 percent calling Cameron the winner and Brown far behind with 14 percent.

There are two more debates, on consecutive Thursdays, in advance of the May 6 election. After Thursday night's opener (aired live in the United States on C-SPAN), there will be even more interest in the coming encounters -- and even more at stake for Brown and Cameron. But on the basis of one trial run, American-style debates are likely to become as much a fixture of British politics as they are in the United States.

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