Terms, the Prime Minister said, are like Shredded Wheat. Three are too many, but two are just right. He might have said the same of gin martinis (gins martini? martinis gin?), served straight up with a twist but that analogy wouldn’t have worked for the woman on the Hendon hybrid bus.
Can you recall watching the first 2010 TV debate (back in the old days when there were as many debates as leaders)? It was moderated by a weirdly on-edge Alistair Stewart on a naff set. I thought it was uninspiring TV and it wouldn’t change anything. I had also consumed 1.5 times the optimal dosage of gin martinis.
The next morning Nick Clegg, beneficiary of low expectations, was declared undisputed winner by the media and the public polling of my dad. David Cameron, by comparison, was lacklustre. It was a frenzy. The debates had changed the game – made politics accessible to the masses. ‘I agree with Nick’ entered the political lexicon.
So here we are five years on.
The first thing to note is that we have a debate at all. Debates, the Prime Minister didn’t say to James Landale, are like divorces. None is the ideal, but if you must, one is preferable to two. And three is often ruinous.
By contrast, in 2010, there were three debates. Participating were three leaders and overseeing three moderators. All male.
A new look for 2015. Seven leaders: three privileged Westminster Establishment men, three uber non-establishment women from the world beyond. And Nigel Farage, the man who, let’s not forget, was nearly killed in a plane crash in the 2010 campaign. What an exotic cocktail!
They will have a minute each to answer a pre-selected question from the audience. Following that 18 minutes of debate moderated by ITV’s Julie Etchingham. There will be four questions in total. Truly Borgen Britain.
Cameron will reinforce the Long Term Economic Plan. He will have to control his temper and not appear patronising. Not dropping clangers and staying Prime Ministerial is key. Miliband has a lot to play for, and I think he’ll impress – but will have to fight against Greens, Plaid and SNP on the left. That will be tough. Nick Clegg, whose straightforward, relaxed style benefited him in 2010 may be at risk of losing his seat. He is fighting for his political life and will have to persuade left leaning voters to trust him. It’s a tall order, but he performs well in these formats.
The Scottish street fighter Sturgeon could be the media sensation – she has a great opportunity here to break onto the national stage. For her, Miliband is the enemy but she’ll enjoy beating up Cameron. Farage can say anything he likes and his base will love it. He will be able to goad Cameron on immigration – but a risk for him is coming across as boorish or sexist on this mixed panel.
The wild card is Natalie Bennett for the Greens, who will speak first. Bennett is now on the national stage and she has learned the spotlight is unforgiving. Her poll ratings have slipped. Plaid are unknown outside Wales – but Leanne Wood can get good media profile at home if she can land some hits on Labour.
But before we get too carried away in the moment, rewind again to the 2010 ‘game changer’ for Clegg. He went into the debates with poll ratings of 21 per cent. He bounced to 35 per cent just afterwards. On polling day he got 23 per cent. So did the debates really change anything? Or was my hazy martini-assisted judgement vindicated by history? Perhaps the debates persuaded the Tories and the public that the Lib Dems were ready for power. Or maybe they showed there was room for more than two parties in the Big League. Or perhaps they are merely a grain of sand in the great egg timer of politics of no lasting significance.
And so in this ephemeral, twice a decade occurrence – we learn one thing. Maybe gin martinis aren’t like Shredded Wheat after all.