What the ‘Battle for Number 10’ Tells Us

Last night’s ‘Battle for Number 10’ TV event wasn’t a debate. Channel 4 and Sky News were at pains to tell us that in advance. It was a Q&A apparently – with some of the Qs delivered by Jeremy Paxman (in typical curmudgeon fashion) and others under-arm bowled by members of the public. Oh and Kay Burley asked a few questions too (such as her killer question to the Prime Minister about how many shredded wheat he could eat).

On Twitter, pundits and hacks and commentators were scrambling around looking for pithy one-liners. Various ‘think-tanks’ were doing real-time analysis and generating little line-graphs that illustrated, apparently, which leader was ‘winning’.

But the thing had no substance. If Paxo couldn’t create sufficient squirming with his question to the PM about zero hours contracts, he moved on. The questions were staccato. The evasions were obvious. Paxo, Public, Public, Paxo. Cameron. Miliband.

The winning or losing wasn’t really the point. It was about point scoring. It was about the broadcasters being testing. It was about Paxo being nasty. It was about the Public, possibly, being disarming. The whole thing was built on a structure that might just unsettle Cameron or Miliband just enough that they might just say something remarkably and shockingly stupid. But they didn’t.

But the thing is – both leaders almost came unstuck. They almost made fools of themselves. Cameron appeared not to know the extent of UK public debt. Miliband appeared not to realise that he was a North London geek.

But one wonders what the point of these things is. Debate isn’t really debate. For one thing, Cameron doesn’t really want to play any more. As a leader he knows that what he says or thinks might only serve to unsteady his ship, his internal supporters within the party and his voters. The entire edifice of government is a house of cards built on foundations of bland.

Modern politics has been debased to the level of poking around within the minutiae while ignoring the big stuff. Grand political visions and strategies are ignored while we watch and tweet in hope that the leaders might make public fools of themselves – for our collective delectation. But the leaders play the game too. They are constantly checking the cards, fiddling with the edifice, terrified that the whole thing might just crash at any second.

Cameron has realised, it would appear, that public debates are a step too far – they are media inspired public spectacles, and a hunger game where no-one really wins. Policy becomes the stuff of ridicule. Political argument, during an election campaign, is ideologically bereft.

The trick, for success, is masterly inactivity. Say nothing of any substance. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t imply any grand visions. Don’t, for goodness sake, suggest any political passion – it comes across a little like desperation. Miliband, when arguing he was tough (“hell yes”) sounded just a little bit too much like the Milky Bar kid.

All this is a great pity for those of us who like our politics raw and undiluted – visceral, ideologically grounded and rambunctious.

But that kind of politics is dead and buried – and from another era. Instead we must grow to love a political diet of safety, question dodging and on-the-fly question paraphrasing. Such is modern politics.

  • Barneyt

    Ideologically, its hard to separate the two main parties. Ed may offer more to restore some semblance of left wing politics in the Labour camp, more than perhaps his brother could, but they all play safe.

    There are more than green shoots of recovery presently, and in that sense Camerons campaigning is being conducted for him. Any sense of the economy recovering will see the Torys in as the biggest party and they may well be able to choose from several very junior coalition parties. They may perhaps sneak an overall majority…just maybe.

    Politics is bland and ideologically bereft in my opinion, as a reflection of a less sophisticated electorate. It was the people on the ground that turned this whole thing into a personality contest in the first place….however I suspect Labour fielding Mr Foot in the 83 campaign may have focused minds on the look and feel a politician should have on the international stage. Labour had to play this card in reverse in 94 when Blair came on the scene, by offering up a well polished Eton sounding, don’t scare the horses alternative to a very grey and dank Mr Major. Again the public played their part and drove this need for gloss.

  • David Crookes

    “…..a little bit too much like the Milky Bar kid.”
    Bravo, Jeff.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The trick, for success, is masterly inactivity.

    What??? There’s nothing masterly about inactivity. Are you suggesting an autistic child staring at the ceiling would pass these debates?

    Yeah trick to success is doing “nothing” … really weird bar to measure success by the bar of being parented to.

    You think the British public want a politician that does nothing?

    Thank goodness I’m walking distance from Donegal.

  • Sharpie

    Conviction politics can’t work easily anymore. The world is too integrated, too interdependent. The Prime Minister and his (or her) cabinet are required to be administrators, reacting to events to ensure the system carries on – and unfortunately that system is designed in favour of an elite who have global interests.

    If a prime minister really said what he thought was a smashing idea to just – chuck out there and see who follows – he would be slaughtered. He cannot decide foreign policy alone but is called into coalitions, trade policy (TTIP), fiscal policy even. At best they get to tinker with stuff but never be radical because the vested interests all over the country are ready to mobilise.

    Therefore the job is to keep the ship steady – let progress take its course and to navigate choppy times.

    It doesn’t matter who is in power – Labour cannot do a radical left and Tories cannot do a radical right – just as in France where the Le Penn party is moving to the centre very rapidly as the prospect of power beckons.

    It is probably right that the people in No10 are fairly bland.

  • james

    Thank goodness.

  • Dan

    The only thing that came out of that programme was to show once and for all how unsuited to high office that gormless geek Miliband would be again.
    He was utterly pathetic, without any redeeming qualities whatsoever.

  • notimetoshine

    I’d be careful using the word geek. The geeks will inherit the earth….

  • Sergiogiorgio

    Barney – I’m genuinely amazed you think there is no difference between the two parties. Ed stated it last night, if as a slip of the tongue. It’s about redistribution of wealth. Take from the those that Labour determine as “rich”, ie folks that work 12 hour days to have 40% of their wages robbed by the government to give to those that Labour determine as “poor”, ie those that are happy to sit at home and watch daytime to. Remember that 30%, I’ll repeat that….30% of the country’s budget goes on welfare payments. That’s more than twice than goes to education. Remember the Labour refrain “education, education, education….”. Let’s keep ’em drunk, keep them on the sofa and keep them voting Labour. Politicians dictating energy prices in a free market, not reforming Health provision as its some sort of Holy Grail ( see Stafford), not talking about the EU because the electorate are too stupid to see the pig in the poke. It’s a dead simple choice at the next election – financial chaos or the Tories. Red Ed is redder than everyone thinks….

  • Sergiogiorgio

    The Big Bang…..geek sheek.

  • Zeno

    The secret of success is sincerity. Once you learn to fake that………….
    Bob Monkhouse.

    Now watch them all over the next 5/6 weeks trying to fake it.

  • Zeno

    “because the electorate are too stupid to see the pig in the poke.”

    Should people who have no clue about what they are actually voting for even be allowed to vote? I think we should bring in a Licence to vote. You should have to prove you are not a complete dimwit before being allowed to select the leaders of the country.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    You’re maybe being deliberately disengenuous here Zeno. My statement above intimates that Labour assume people are too stupid to understand the failed EU experiment and hence point blank refuse to give the electorate a referendum on the EU. They also know they would loose said referendum. Unless of course you believe people should be IQ tested before being allowed to vote…..an interesting proposition but probably not acceptable…..I wonder if you really got down to brass tacks with a lot of Labour voters as to why they are voting Labour in this upcoming election….”because we want themmuns with money to be taxed more so ussuns can be given more Benefits…”. Welcome to broken Britain, summit for nutthin’

  • Zeno

    Apologies I wasn’t being deliberately disingenuous.
    An IQ Test would be a good start, but I was badly making the point that a lot of people don’t appear to know what they are voting for.
    I remember Maggie Thatcher being elected and an interviewer asking people why they had voted for her? Some voters actually said it was because her Parents owned a corner shop and she had worked in the shop so that would be a good grounding for her to run the country.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    Greed, naive idealism, stupidity and who me Da voted for, usually in equal measure Zeno.

  • Pasty2012

    Cameron now knows the cost of support from the DUP which has been put at £1.3Billion British Pounds per year to NI. Will David Cameron state clearly there will be NO deal with the DUP just as he has demanded that Labour rule out a deal with the SNP due to their demands ? Or is ability to form a Government with other UK MP’s only ok between the Conservatives and whoever they can get support from ?

  • Sergiogiorgio

    Why should he state there will be no deal? Does he need to be as dumb as Labour in ruling out an SNP alliance? A complete own goal by Labour…all downside and no upside.