If you want my fuller view on it clip to the end of this post and watch this morning’s #SluggerReport. But here are some abbreviated thoughts on last night’s BBC debate in order of the LucidTalk panel (or digital focus group) findings, along with original artwork from @crap_portraits to accompany each of the ‘party leaders’.
Mike Nesbitt: Keyword is story. Three out of the five leaders are new. Of these, Mike was the only one with what you might call a story (rather than a soundbite) to tell. He’s had time to experiment, make mistakes, get smaller, start to win seats, and finally (in the last five to six months) figure out just exactly what he wants to say. He already owns mental health and is beginning to boss on the past.
Segmenting the Unionist market has allowed him to focus on simple gains. By ascribing the ‘nothing is agreed until everything is’ trope to the DUP and SF he set up a strong message that uncontroversial help is being withheld from victims. He used Martin McGuinness’s own testimony to Savile to extinguish the dFM’s suggestion that the IRA would ever reciprocate on state disclosures.
Twelve years after Arlene left the UUP for the DUP, Nesbitt is at least starting to look plausible. However, he faces a formidable team in the DUP. If this is a fightback it is only the end of the beginning.
Martin McGuinness: Keyword is age. I’m not sure I go along with Brian Feeney’s on the spot judgement last night that he was the only statesmanlike figure amongst them all, but Martin does benefit from being the most senior figure on the panel last night, as well as being the only one isn’t a party leader. Not only do we know him but his age is still something of an asset alongside his main rival Colum Eastwood.
He adroitly stepped aside when it came to the news (breaking almost as the programme was airing) that funding was to be delayed for troubles related inquests because of yet another disagreement between Sinn Fein and the DUP (Gerry Kelly blamed the Brits rather than Arlene Foster last night), letting Arlene catch the flack. Education failed to materialise, so a free pass there. Asked about the £1 billion boost he promised for health, there was a vague nod in the direction of monitoring rounds (ie someone else’s budget).
At times, he seemed just a little bit too desperate to box the ears of the young cub from Derry, which he signally failed to do: particularly over the possibility of the SDLP going into opposition. An ageing boxer with slowing footwork.
Arlene Foster: Keyword is snark. Of all the party leaders probably most pressure is on Arlene. She’s the only woman, which by and large should and does play in her favour. And her party has pretty much made her the brand this time round. Pre the election campaign, she’s displayed a fairly calm exterior even in fairly tough interrogations. But in both debates her rather angular and snarky side has emerged.
It’s not that she didn’t have her wins. Nesbitt was mostly too much for her last night, but perhaps more on matters that may not matter too much to her DUP dog whistle sensitive electoral base. She did anticipate an Eastwood attack on investment figures by pointing out that 75% of all investment goes to places outside Belfast. Tidy enough performance, but her tendency to overreact rather than pick her moments undermines her ability to cut through.
Newton Emerson’s criticism last week nailed the problem: Ms Foster must become her office or the office will eventually become just her.
Colum Eastwood: Keyword is punchy. Colum is the boy amongst men (and woman). His age and generation are both his greatest strength and weakness. On Good Morning Ulster this morning, a younger respondent suggested they wanted more people like him, though it is not yet clear that he is any more capable of breaking through TV’s fourth wall to connect with those same youthful voters. [Patience, tomorrow’s polling day. We’ll find out soon enough! – Ed]
Last night he dropped a lot of the policy stuff he’d come in with during the UTV debate and for one long period in the middle of the debate said nothing or saw no reason to interject. No strategy survives contact with the enemy, and it may be that after Gerard Diver’s contact with Stephen Nolan the SDLP decided to go for minimum risk and make it a very tight defensive fight.
Suzanne Breen said he’d be happy with last night. He showed fight and dealt comfortably with some very aggressive attention from McGuinness. Eastwood still looks too young for his job, but then again he has time is on his side.
David Ford: Keyword is marginal. Age is a factor. Marginality is always a problem for the Alliance party, but you get a sense that they aren’t quite responding a subtly shifting environment. David’s complaints aimed volubly at Noel Thompson for giving too much space to the two-sided infra communal bun-fighting had resonance. But it also highlighted his own lack of penetration in the fray and lack of a new compelling story.
He has been around long enough to have learned all the Alliance mantras about the costs of division backwards, and in Swahili, but he looks tired, and at times exasperated with the sheer routine of it all. He gives the impression that he (and probably most of the party) is just standing in the corridor, waiting by the exit for the arrival of one time Slugger ‘Up and Coming Politician of the Year’, Naomi Long.
Under Ford, the Alliance party has prospered as an efficient buffer between the angry OFMdFM twins stepping into the breach and taking Justice. But this campaign has been a holding operation: as they wait for their once and future queen.
And this morning’s #SluggerReport…
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty