Who Won the 2nd UK debate?

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I need say nothing else. From Time’s London Bureau Chief Catherine Mayer:

Who won the second of the televised debates between the three men battling to be Britain’s next Prime Minister? The current Labour PM Gordon Brown? His Conservative challenger David Cameron? The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, elevated by last week’s debate from third-party nonentity to man of the moment?  Or Rupert Murdoch, media baron and potent force in Britain’s political life? The debate was screened on one of Murdoch’s satellite channels, Sky News, and moderated by Sky’s political editor, Adam Boulton, who led the campaign to hold such debates (which I backed, when asked, during an appearance on Boulton’s Sunday morning politics show last December).

Shortly after the debates had been agreed and finalized, I bumped into Adam in the media center at the Iraq Inquiry and he told me he was happy that Sky had drawn foreign affairs as its topic. I wasn’t surprised. It’s potentially the most interesting subject area for politics junkies, if rarely at the epicenter of election campaigns. Adam is one of Britain’s smartest interviewers and could have been expected, despite the 76 rules governing the interaction of the candidates, to tease some fascinating answers out of Messrs Brown, Cameron and Clegg on Afghanistan, Iran, China, the not-so-special relationship with Washington, and of course on the long-running trouser-dropping side-splitting farce that is Britain’s relationship with the European Union.

Foreign policy is arguably Cameron’s weakest suit – arguably because Cameron supporters will argue with that proposition. His attempt to assuage the Euroskeptics in his own party has pushed him into an uncomfortable alliance in the European Parliament with parties that don’t share his stated gay-friendly, prejudice-intolerant attitudes. But his Euroskepsis isn’t strong enough to fully convince anti-Europe hardliners.

Clegg is sufficiently pro-European to scare even pro-Europeans, but he knows his stuff on Europe, having served as a member of the European Parliament and worked for the European Commission. His biggest advantage in the debate might have been expected to be his party’s opposition to the Iraq war. His rivals were expected to attack Clegg on his policy of not renewing Britain’s nuclear subs.

As for Brown, his foreign policy is often indistinguishable from his economic policy. He has long argued for the reform of the international institutions. He’s absolutely right, but it’s not the easiest of topics to boil down to debating points. And on many other areas, not least the equipping of British troops in Afghanistan, he’s at the disadvantage of all long-term incumbents, lugging some pretty heavy baggage.

All of this promised a much sparkier debate than last week, and so it started, with the statesman-like reserve of the first encounter quickly giving way to a feisty series of exchanges that almost aspired to the rich, demotic phrasing of Australian politics. Clegg called Cameron’s European allies “nutters.” Brown called Cameron “anti-European” and Clegg “anti-American.” Cameron repurposed Brown’s embarrassingly fawning catchphrase from the first debate, “I agree with Nick,” to turn it against its progenitor and its subject. “I thought I’d never utter these words, but I agree with Gordon,” said the Conservative leader, siding with the Prime Minister on the need for Britain to have a nuclear deterrent.

 

But after a quick romp through topics that had been deemed to belong on the foreign agenda, including climate change (OK, fair enough) and the Pope’s planned September visit to Britain (well, the Pope is German), Boulton announced that this part of the debate was over. The entire second half of the discussion revolved around issues closer to home.

Admittedly these are the issues that are likely to decide the election. But it also focused attention on two issues most likely to slow or halt Clegg’s ascendancy in opinion polls. He was asked, by Boulton, about a newspaper story questioning donor payments into his personal bank account and the candidates also debated whether a hung parliament – a possible byproduct of Clegg’s popularity – would be bad for Britain.

In the end, neither of these questions appeared to trouble Clegg too seriously, and with Brown and Cameron performing far more strongly than in the first debate, all of them emerged with honor. An instant poll for ITV News by ComRes crowned Clegg the winner with 33% to Brown and Cameron’s 30% each. The hardest blow was sustained by Brown, forced to disavow campaign leaflets issued by his party’s own candidates that Cameron said tell “lies” about Conservative policy.

So how does any of this relate to Murdoch? His British tabloid newspapers, The Sun and the News of the World, have endorsed Cameron and are backing him to the hilt. A poor showing by Cameron – or another massive win for Clegg – might not have gone down well in some quarters. To see how high emotions are running, read this.  And this.  I don’t believe in conspiracy theories and there were strong editorial arguments for squeezing in the core election topics. It’s impossible to know if the result would have differed if the whole debate had centered on international issues. All I can say is that I would have enjoyed it more.

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