How Labour saw Clegg before the 2010 election TV debates

by Stephen Tall on April 16, 2013

clegg debateThere have been a couple of fascinating posts this week by election expert Philip Cowley, a politics professor at Nottingham University. They reveal for the first time the internal briefing prepared for Labour dissecting the debating skills of each of the three party leaders — Clegg, Brown and Cameron — ahead of the 2010 leaders’ debate.

Yesterday’s focused on David Cameron. Today the spotlight of hindsight is shone on Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown. Below is the assessment of the Lib Dem leader — and what’s perhaps most interesting is how thin it is compared to the assessment of Cameron.

There are some hints of how Nick would approach the debates which inspired ‘Cleggmania’ — just 3 years ago, yet somehow a lifetime! — but its generally dismissive tone highlights how little attention was paid to the threat he posed.

The briefing on Nick Clegg is the shortest of the three, not least because (as the briefing notes) ‘most of the time he simply appears anonymous – he has little room to impose himself on the political stage and this seems to frustrate him more than anything’. But it added presciently, ‘he will relish the platform the TV debates give his party’. In full, it read:

– “he rarely commands attention or authority in the House of Commons, mainly because of the physical position in the Chamber from which he speaks, and the tendency of Labour and Conservative MPs to shout him down

– he tends to sound moderate, fair and reasonable

– but his strongest performances have been where he has been moved to anger at injustice

– on issues like Iraq (which his party opposed) he is able to sound justified and genuine without being smug or droning on

– most of the time he simply appears anonymous – he has little room to impose himself on the political stage and this seems to frustrate him more than anything – he will relish the platform the TV debates give his party

– his party’s tendency to sit on the fence makes him appear pleasant but dull, uninspiring but unthreatening

– he is continually exasperated by the confidence and braggadocio with which the two main leaders dismiss him

– however he should not be underestimated: Gordon and Cameron are used to fighting each other – only Clegg is well used to fighting with both hands – albeit weakly”.

As Dennis Kavanagh and I showed in our book on the 2010 election, once Labour and the Conservatives began their full debate rehearsals, they soon realised just what an opportunity the debates would give Nick Clegg.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.