Friday, November 04, 2005

Scoring the Debate

Whilst it was encouraging to see two politicians going head-to-head with each other last night, I think the format of the Cameron vs Davis debate was such that it was always going to be difficult for one to land a knockout blow against the other. This was particularly the case given that Cameron had a habit of ignoring the question he was asked, and instead answering the question that he wanted.

In my opinion, Davis was the winner, but only up to a point. When he directly engaged Cameron, he came out on top pretty much every time. Indeed, there were a large number of times that Cameron looked positively nervous when Davis went on the offensive. Sometimes even when he didn't, most notably on the drugs issue. I finished the debate having no doubt who the better performer at the despatch box would be.

William Hague, however, is living proof of the fact that making mincemeat of Blair at PMQs doesn't necessarily translate into electoral success. Hague's failure was based on two other major shortcomings: policy substance ("keep the pound" doesn't work when Blair is promising a referendum...) and his media profile, probably fatally wounded from his appearance at the Notting Hill Carnival.

When it comes to handling the media cycle, Cameron will undoubtedly be the better performer. He opened the debate brilliantly - slick, smart and hitting all the right notes. Whilst he may have floundered later on, he is superb at the prepared peroration. More impressively still, he is able to use soundbites - phrases he has used right throughout his campaign - without making them sound rehearsed or stale. If I wasn't such a political nerd, I'd never have noticed his repetition of stock phrases. Davis, on the other hand, doesn't have such an inspiring delivery - he does mangle some of his better points. He comes across as genuinely sincere, but not necessarily inspiring. Give the two chance to speak without opposition, and Cameron comes out on top every time.

As far as substance goes, I think that my opinions, to any regular reader of this blog, are probably already known. Cameron seems to have shied away from any mention of policy whatsoever, or at least anything of any particular substance. Unlike some, I'm also unwilling to just trust the word of people like Clarke and Rikfind that he is sound. He's progressed so far and so fast by being the protege of Michael Howard; he wrote the last manifesto, and I suspect that his instincts are right-wing.

Davis, on the other hand, approaches things from a much more interesting angle. He has come out with substance on schools and tax cuts. On the face of it, they seem typical Tory arguments - but Davis has phrased them very much in a small-l liberal way. Facilitating opportunity, giving individuals a chance. What impressed me most about him last night was the memorable exchange at the end, where he called Cameron out on his lack of substance.
David, the point the gentleman was making was people want to know what we stand for. You talked eloquently a few moments ago about ideas and principles. We've got to explain what that means. I had a man in my constituency not very long ago, a 59-year-old man who had lost his job and lost his pension - it had gone down from £20,000 to £6,000 - and he wants to know what we mean. Not what we stand for. What we mean. The lady in the inner city with her children at a school where she cannot bear the education. She wants to know what we mean. We cannot get by just by high-flown words.
Explaining what policy means to the individual, of course, is the huge and unappreciated strength of Tony Blair. But to hear Davis say this in such unequivocal terms was music to my ears. It's fun discussing principles, strategies, philosophies - and often they can lead a debate in useful and unforseen directions. But that's not a way of actually winning an election - it's not even a way of making a difference. People need something they can hang their hat on, something that makes them comfortable with assuming the clothes of a party allegiance, however fleeting that association might be. Cameron has resolutely failed to achieve that.

So, I guess when I try and reason it out, I like Davis more. I also have a lot of time for his manner - he gets described as a streetfighter, but I think that he's honest and sincere. He stands for things that I don't like; so does Cameron. Indeed, so do all parties - that's why I consider myself an archetypal floating voter. Is he the best leader for the Tories? I can't unequivocally say yes to that. Cameron has a positive media profile; worse, the media already have their anti-Tory line if Davis is elected leader - they will be portrayed as running to the right for a third time. Is that a saddle the Tories want to carry into the next election? The loss of momentum now, as strange as it sounds, may reduce the chances in 2009 massively, if we assume no mjor Labour cock-ups. So, as if it matters anyway, I'm not going to be making a Militant Moderate endorsement. Davis won the debate, but not sufficiently conclusively to significantly shift the dynamics of the race.