John Lanchester · The Leaders' Debate

Front page of the Sun, over photos of the volcano and the leaders’ debate: ‘Britain Paralysed By Hot Air’. Vulcanologically inaccurate, but not bad.

To be fair, the debate was better than that; and I don’t think anyone watching it would have thought that any of the three party leaders was thick or incompetent or mad or self-evidently unqualified. Needless to say – and yet here I am saying it – the most important subject of all, the deficit and impending cuts, did not feature in any serious way. But it would have been naive to expect otherwise and the exchanges were at least an entertaining simulacrum of real debate.

As for ‘Thick Nick’ coming out on top, that was not just predictable but widely predicted. As UK Polling Report pointed out, with the announcement of the election on 6 April, the BBC producer guidelines for general elections came into effect, ‘so the Lib Dems can look forward to having a higher level of coverage in the broadcast media.’ The key passage in the guidelines is on page 5, where it says:

To achieve due impartiality, each bulletin, programme or programme strand, as well as online and interactive services, for each election, must ensure that the parties are covered proportionately over an appropriate period, normally across a week. This means taking into account levels of past and current electoral support.

And, crucially:

Previous electoral support in equivalent elections is the starting point for making judgements about the proportionate levels of coverage between parties.

Translated, that means ‘we can’t ignore the Lib Dems the way we usually do, because they got 22 per cent of the vote last time.’ So the election broadcast rules, in and of themselves, give the Lib Dems a bounce. Add to that the fact that the third-party candidate will always tend to win a three-way debate – because the two leading candidates will attach each other, and he can stand back and say something along the lines of ‘yuck’. Clegg’s version of this was the well-scripted and well-delivered zinger: ‘The more they attack each other the more they sound the same.’ But even the tonto-seeming Ross Perot thrived in his three-way debate with Clinton and the elder Bush.

The two bigger parties deserved this. One of the least edifying spectacles the House of Commons has to offer – and that is a pretty competitive area of unedifyingness – is when Clegg tries to speak and the other parties jeer at him, talk over him, or simply walk out. The contempt they display for Clegg isn’t the issue; the thing that matters is the contempt they display for the electorate. He deserved his moment.