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The First Election Debate, ITV1 | reviews, news & interviews

The First Election Debate, ITV1

The First Election Debate, ITV1

Live telly encounter is 90-minute snore-fest

Nightmare on Downing Street : Clegg, Cameron and Brown want your vote

The way the pundits were jumping up and down hailing a historic night in British politics, you'd think nobody had ever seen Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Gordon Brown on TV before. This, we were told, could be a historic 90 minutes that would transform our nation's political discourse. "The leaders' debate will be a direct confrontation with the voters that could change the election", according to a man wearing glasses in The Times.

I had an inkling the Telegraph's Benedict Brogan could be nearer the mark when he wondered: "What if it's too boring for words?" Sure enough, the first-ever "primetime showdown" of the three party leaders, in which we were invited to believe that American-style presidential politics would parade across our screens like a chrome-encrusted motorcade with outriders, cheerleaders and a marching band, turned out to be just three blokes in suits parroting the same partisan cliches we've been hearing since the phony election campaign began on 2 January.
As for the "direct confrontation with the voters", any such thing had been systematically nullified in advance by the ridiculously rigid pre-arranged parameters. God knows how The Guardian found it "electrifying" and "fast-moving". Each candidate was permitted an opening speech and a closing speech (Brown, as far as I could tell, recited the same one twice). In between, they answered carefully vetted questions from the audience in rotation, all of them conspicuously more bland than the stuff politicians routinely bat around on Question Time. The audience wasn't allowed to applaud or heckle, as if the politicians deserved only reverential silence, perhaps in deference to the awesome cleverness with which they spoke yet said nothing. The whole thing was emcee'd by Alastair Stewart in a stridently authoritarian tone.
cleggy_smallITV's rapid-reaction poll straight after the programme gave victory to Clegg (pictured right) by an impressive margin, with Dave second and Gordo, the antidote to television, trailing in last. Clegg is in the advantageous position of being able to make trouble by merely running around in the enemy's penalty area and sticking his tongue out (although the post-match vote-ometer registered an instant decline when Cleggy rashly hinted at the possibility of cuts in public services), but his refrain of "Vote for us and dump the two old parties who've been useless for decades" does have an unmistakeable allure.
Lending weight to rumours of a secret Lib-Lab pact, Brown kept grovelling to Clegg by telling him how much he agreed with him, while ignoring Cameron even though he agreed as well. Dave remained unflustered, but only because Team Dave had coached him into extreme boringness. Conversely, Labour's gag-writing consortium had been burning the midnight oil to supply Gordon with a joke. With comic timing reminiscent of the late Leonid Brezhnev, he thanked Dave for giving him so much free publicity with those posters which depict him "smiling". He concluded this splendid Official Joke with a little laugh, which made him look like the only person in the hall who claps at the end of the first movement.
What this insultingly tedious farrago cried out for was a spot of People's Justice, where the studio audience have an instant vote and tip the losers into a tank of evil-smelling slime. The winner gets put in the stocks and pelted with fruit, golf balls, darts or whatever. Gets my vote.
  • More leaders' debates on 22 and 29 April

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