BRITISH politics is in a sorry state – that, I’m afraid, is the only conclusion that can be drawn from last night’s leaders’ debate. All three wannabe PMs played it safe; there was barely any acknowledgement of how the recession and crisis at the heart of the public finances has changed everything and how we can’t go on spending £5 for every £4 collected in tax. The financial bubble has long since burst – but judging from last night, the politics of excess remains the norm in Westminster.
Part of the problem was that the public’s questions were still rooted in a boom time, entitlement mindset, with studio guests invariably interested in extra spending or in how the parties would protect existing expenditure. The likelihood that – regardless of who is elected – huge spending cuts will be required, as has been necessary in recent years in Canada, Ireland and Greece, didn’t really permeate the discussion. All three leaders were guilty of pandering to this, albeit to differing degrees, implying that minor tax hikes or small-scale belt-tightening will be enough to allow the UK to muddle through – a view as dangerous as it is untrue.
We know from their manifestos that there are in fact substantial policy differences between the parties but – in big picture terms at least – these didn’t really emerge. All three made unaffordable promises, with the Prime Minister by far the worst offender. David Cameron and Gordon Brown argued at length over the Tory plan to cut waste by £6bn – this amounts to just one per cent of public spending, yet Brown kept on claiming, quite absurdly, that to do this would risk triggering a double-dip recession. Cameron was right to point out that Brown’s hike in national insurance would destroy jobs; he did a good job defending his waste reduction plan, pointing out that it is always possible to cut costs by one per cent in any organisation without affecting output. It still felt a little too much like a phoney war, however, and Cameron missed a great opportunity to talk about his policy to allow the creation of thousands of privately run but taxpayer-funded new schools.
The post-debate national polls showed last night that Nick Clegg was the overwhelming winner among the public at large (our own panel of City and business professionals, a subset of which we surveyed last night, preferred David Cameron, with Clegg a close second). In part, Clegg’s triumph was due to the widespread hatred of the political establishment; expressing a pro-Clegg opinion after the debate was seen by the public as a cheap way of thumbing their noses at the two main parties.
Cameron’s great mistake was that he was too soft. He was clearly advised that to appear angry would worry or annoy floating voters; but he lacked enough raw passion, apart from on the health service, where he sounded a little more forceful.
Yet if Clegg was the big winner, Brown was the objective loser: he placed last in all of the polls. He is a busted flush whose only hope is to cling to power by teaming up with Clegg in a hung Parliament; he was clearly trying to cosy up to Clegg yesterday. Cameron has been weakened but can still bounce back. The real question, however, is whether the debates will have a permanent pro-Clegg effect or whether the campaign – and the opinion polls – soon return to business as usual. My money would be on the latter – but we shall see.