The Leaders' Debate: a mere sideshow trifle

This was, without doubt, the worst Kraftwerk gig I've ever watched.

The circus was well and truly in town for one night only in Manchester last night, with three clowns bringing joy and light into the lives of the benighted serfs that inhabit the God-forsaken hole. David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg each performed a hilarious comedy routine with much slapstick, custard pie throwing and tipping of buckets full of brightly coloured confetti into one another's pants. The crowd went wild - or at least, they would have done, but "pre-arranged rules" and in all likelihood cattle prod-wielding security ensured they remained rooted to their seats and kept shtum. A Question Time audience would have jeered themselves hoarse.

The general consensus is that the boy Clegg, who looked about 20, did rather well for himself - he looked calm and relaxed and even cracked a semi-joke or two at the others expense. Cameron was caught by surprise on a number of occasions by presenter Alastair Stewart, who wasn't taking shit from anyone, when he was cut off mid-flow and left gawping "but...but..." like a semi-sentient goldfish. Brown, bless his little tartan socks, tried his best and forced a smile or two, but as is his downfall he came across as dour, moody and tired. Opinion polls today seem to agree Cleggy delivered - the LibDems are showing a marked upturn, while Labour and the Tories dive downwards. It'd not enough to win them the election, but if Nick can keep it up they may well be in for their best result in decades.

The leaders discussed a variety of issues, including Acid Rabbi favourites immigration (none of them taking quite as liberal a position as we would - ie; let people go where they want when they want - but it's apparent each party has some reasonably solid ideas. Sadly all ideas based on dealing with widespread public worries by limiting immigration rather than educating them so they understand immigration is more likely to solve than cause problems, but there you have it. Clegg pulled a real trick on this one by being the only participant to actually say something nice about immigrants, a fact that will do him no end of favours since the majority of British people are not racist) and MP's expenses, which took the form of the usual "we're really, really sorry" with a noticeable lisp on the 's' in sorry which is hissed out by their devious, forked tongues. This one was always going to play well for Clegg as the LibDems came out of the expenses scandal in far better shape than the other main parties. Cameron and Brown made all the usual noises but it was evident that the stage, which looked rather like it had been cobbled together from 1988-vintage Countdown sets (and thinking of it, doesn't Alastair Stewart look a little like a cadaverous Richard Whiteley?) had become a very uncomfortable place.

The economy took up a fair chunk of the show and Mrs. Rabbi, who is a woman and thus has a keen eye for details such as this, noted that the cost of Parliament for 2010 could have been reduced dramatically had the three amigos chosen to wear something out of their wardrobes or an off-the-peg BHS suit rather than each spending something probably not far off the average British family's monthly income on some admittedly fine-lookin' threads. Clegg - easily the cutest of the three, says Mrs. Rabbi - wore a smooth charcoal grey number with a LibDem yellow tie and he wore it well, looking relaxed, comfortable and even cool. Cameron, as ever, looked like a boiled potato in a regulation dark blue Tory suit with blue tie but having been born in Savile Row's finest it was a boiled potato dressed with the very finest mayonnaise. His shoes looked like they probably worth as much as a healthy pair of kidneys on the black market (and who knows? Being a Tory, they may well have been made of kidneys ripped from the lithe young body of a working class teenager). Brown went for dour-yet-dependable black. That he - a man who is not in the very best of shape - looked notably prime ministerial is token of his tailor's admirable skills. He wore the Red Tie of Socialism, which he possibly sees as a suitable replacement for flying the Red Flag that his predecessor ripped up and burnt back in 1997. Sadly, he was unable to sound prime ministerial and came across as slightly confused, sad and wishing he was elsewhere.

That got us thinking - what did the gig actually achieve, especially when so many important matters - technology, the Middle East and so on - were not mentioned? Well: Clegg persuaded a few undecideds who vote according to how good a candidate looks on the telly that they should go with him and Cameron and Brown convinced a few others that doing so might not be a bad idea. That was about it, really. But it's not even nearly enough to make a LibDem government a likely prospect - while the Daily Telegraph claims that if the General Election was held today, the LibDems would win 159 seats (Labour would win 165, the Tories 294), Clegg's inability to throw himself headlong into political scraps will ensure last night's performance is forgotten by all but a few pundits and bloggers by the 6th of May so if anything it just makes a hung parliament look more probable. Secondly, what did it cost? ITV, perhaps because they took the unusual decision not to screen any adverts for the full 90 minutes, spent little - the set probably cost about a fiver and whereas Stewart is doubtless not on minimum wage whatever they paid him will be seen as a bargain in return for 9.8 million viewers (plus however much other channels pay them for the right to show the debate) - but whatever they spent will have been covered by their own budget, which is made up of what advertisers pay them. How much, we wonder, did it cost us, the tax-payers?

It was obvious that in addition to their posh suits and shiny shoes, each leader had been subject to a whole host of image consultants, stylists and who knows what else over the last few weeks. Their voices may have faltered as they argued around tricky points, but visually all three men were stunning. Clegg, who had been jotting down notes throughout, made a great show of reciting the names of those who had asked questions (including Joel, the rabbi's son who drove Nick Griffin into a corner during his notorious Question Time appearance and wouldn't let him out again, a lad who will probably be presenting programmes of this type in a few years' time) and thanking them - perhaps it was insincere and a calculated attempt to make him look more human, but coming at the end of 90 minutes in which he had shown himself to have infinitely better manners than his rivals it was PR gold and charmed the crowd. Brown, perhaps realising suddenly that this was his last chance to show he too cares about the proles, made a last ditch effort and shook hands with a few members of the audience. Cameron stood staring ahead, as if trying to work out whether or not his performance was sufficiently poor to put his party behind Labour in the polls - it wasn't, though we're not going to pretend you didn't do a piss-poor job last night, posh boy.

Many bloggers are calling the debate a gladiatorial contest but we disagree. While entertaining, it was nothing more than an mildly amusing circus routine. Some people will have decided who to vote for last night, but let's credit the public with some intellect - most people don't vote according to how nice Clegg, Cameron or Brown's suit looks, how shiny their shoes are or how accomplished a performer on stage they are (though I have to admit, had one of them showed up in paratrooper boots, combat trousers and a Crass t-shirt they'd have earned a lifetime's party membership fees from me). Even in these days of gym-joining narcissism, botox and celebrity-worship, the majority of the electorate vote for the candidate representing the party that supports the views they share and the causes they believe in. The Liberal Democrats scored some valuable points last night, the Conservatives lost some and Labour flogged a dead horse but all three demonstrated their belief that the public are a bit thick with loyalties that can be bought for a few shiny trinkets.

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