In a piece for The Times earlier this week, about how social networking was changing the way many people consume media and interact with the political debate, I referred to the TV debates between the party leaders, which will be a genuinely new development in the forthcoming campaign.
I said the relative spending power of the parties, so far as the debates were concerned, would be irrelevant. So would the millions of words of hype. All that mattered was the performance of the leaders and the reactions of the public watching live, then talking to each other.
If I may add a few more words to the hype, I would like to draw attention to the Telegraph’s coverage of its own poll today.
The state of the parties standing confirms the recent narrowing of the gap between the Tories and Labour. But it is a reference to the TV debates that interests me. I quote here not from the paper itself but from Labour’s media monitoring department’s account of it in their report on the morning papers. ‘Despite an advertising blitz, an attempted Labour coup to remove the PM & the desperate state of the economy Labour has managed to close the gap. Conservative strategists hope that the turmoil created by allegations of bullying against GB coupled with Darling’s unexpectedly forthright attack on the PM will have a beneficial impact in the polls over the coming days. The poll, which was conducted this week, suggests that there was no immediate effect from the bullying accusations. Cameron will also take comfort from the news that 60% of voters believe the television election debates will play an important part in helping them decide which way to vote. The Conservative leader is widely expected to perform the best in the first ever British general election debates. 53% think Cameron will gain most public support as a result of the three live broadcasts, compared to 20% for GB & 12% Clegg.’
I highlight the words ‘Cameron will also take comfort‘ to underline the widespread media expectation, underlined by the figures in the poll, that the Tory leader will outperform GB in these debates, which today’s survey, rightly I think, suggests will be an important factor in determining the final election outcome.
I suppose it gives us some inkling of the volume of hype the debates will generate that pollsters are asking for views on who will win this far off.
But the ‘Cameron sure to win’ mindset could turn out to be a problem for him. It is generally acknowledged that he is a better communicator than many of his predecessors, like Iain Duncan-Smith and Michael Howard. That would not be hard. It is also widely acknowledged – not least by GB – that the Prime Minister is not totally at ease with all the realities of operating in topflight politics in the media age.
But these debates will be more than a sparring of soundbites. They will require substance, policy detail, and real arguments about the future direction of the country. And that combination may well play to GB’s strengths rather than DC’s. The events are also a huge bonus for Nick Clegg, who remains little known outside those who follow closely the ins and outs of the political debate.
So far from taking comfort from the expectations on the debates, I think Team Dave should worry about them. One of the reasons the poll gap has narrowed is that people are beginning to think there is not much substance to the Tory leader, and not much depth to his team. A polished performance, from a pure communications perspective, will not on its own help him in the debates. Indeed it could exacerbate the sense that PR is all he really cares about, and that he lacks the sense of mission for the country that a would-be PM must have.
Elsewhere in the polling jungle today, a survey of Tory members shows them urging a rightward lurch focusing on immigration, as the hopeless Howard campaign did last time. This survey too is good news for Labour. It shows up another of the reasons why Cameron has stalled – he talks a lot about how the Party has changed, but scratch beneath the surface a little, and it’s pretty much the same old Tory Party.
And more cheering survey fare from The Times which reports on a poll of 100 Tory candidates in winnable seats who named Mrs Thatcher as the runaway first choice as political hero, ahead of Sir Winston Churchill. William Wilberforce and Benjamin Disraeli. Thatcher’s world view is also evident when likely new MPs are asked about the European Union. Two candidates nominated Cameron as their political hero, whilst five named William Hague, including one whose admiration did not extend to knowing how to spell his name.
All in all, rather a cheering media monitoring report this morning. And in the FT, the one actual paper I’ve read, nice to see the word ‘wibbly-wobbliness’ entering the language, from the lips of Peter Mandelson, on the subject of Mr Cameron.