Are the TV debates finally testing our leaders' Prime Ministerial mettle?
Louisa Coward is the editorial intern at CorpComms Magazine
The TV election debates have got the electorate and media talking but now that the second glare of the studio spotlight has subsided, the leaders have to negotiate the transition from personality through policy to viable PM. Last night was supposed to be stage two.
'There were real efforts by Brown and Cameron to get down to policy detail,' said Chris Whitehouse, managing director of the Whitehouse Consultancy. 'But this is proving increasingly difficult given the personality driven news agenda with which we are increasingly saddled. Democracy is the poorer for [the debates], I fear, as we are getting 'politics-lite' rather than the real meat of the traditional British on-the-ground slog.'
Headlines lambasting Clegg yesterday morning for misappropriation of funds and a 'straight out of right field' cover story from the Daily Mail accusing the Lib Dem leader of Nazism, had left a bitter taste in political mouths. Having each been subjected to unwelcome and, for the British press, characteristically personal media scrutiny in the last week, all three politicians showed some eagerness to get back to business and outline the policy priorities that differentiate them.
'I think increasingly the electorate are distinguishing between who performs well, and who will govern well,' said Matt Bryant, director of Connect Communications. Which is perhaps just as well for Brown, who made no bones about his presentational weaknesses, declaring: 'If it is all about style and PR, count me out.'
As advisers no doubt anticipated, these candid admissions only served to reinforce a sense of gruff sincerity in the hoary leader. As Stuart Bruce, managing director of Wolfstar Consultancy, said: 'Brown wasn't asking you to like him. He just demonstrated that it's a big job that needs a leader of substance.'
With his adversaries 'squabbling' over who could wear the mantle of change, the Prime Minister unabashedly put his experience in the foreground. On the question of the EU, he highlighted his cooperation with Europe in the global financial crisis and his mediation between Europe and America during G20. He attacked the Conservatives on financial policy and the Lib Dems on defence, insisting: 'David, you are a risk to the economy. Nick, you are a risk because of what you are saying on Iran and on nuclear weapons, to our security. Nick, you would leave us weak; David you would leave us isolated in Europe.'
Brown once again highlighted his advantage in familiarity with the corridors of power when he rounded on the Lib Dem leader over the latter's plans to replace the Trident missile programme, biting back with the retort: 'I have to deal with these situations every day and I say to you Nick: get real...Now get real about the danger that we face if we have North Korea, Iran and other countries with nuclear weapons and we give up our own.'
Prior to the debate, Irish bookmaker PaddyPower had taken bets on how many times the PM would say 'I agree with Nick' but nobody was even offering odds on Cameron's unexpected last word on defence last night: 'I agree with Gordon.'
Olly Kendall, account director at Insight PA, said: 'In many ways, policy is a double-edged sword for Brown. He is certainly on top of policy detail but he also has to compete with 13 years of policy making in Government, much of which is open to criticism.'
Brown's brief was clearly to say: 'better the devil you know' - to emphasise the risk of steering into uncharted waters at such a critical hour and to expose his opponents' strategies as naïve, misguided and unworkable.
In amongst what Cameron termed the 'bickering', Tim Collins, managing director of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, discerned 'genuine differences' in party policym adding that the Conservative leader 'was able to distinguish himself on immigration, National Insurance and Europe which no doubt will have pleased him.'
Collins believed that Cameron also demonstrated passion and incredulity that would have played well to the Cleggophiles, attacking Brown over 'lying' Labour leaflets that claimed the Tories would cut pension credits and scrap benefits such as free bus passes and TV licences for the elderly were they to gain power, declaring himself 'really very, very angry' and pledging to do neither.
However, Cameron has received a lot of flack in the press for pandering to Clegg's fan base by mimicking his performance style, playing the odd-man-out and what Kendall termed his 'his unnatural attempts to constantly eyeball the camera.'
Kendall also noted another alarming oversight in the Tory frontman's piece to camera. 'Despite a performance that seemed to have been focus-grouped to with an inch of its life, he failed to mention the Big Society that is supposed to be the mainstay of his campaign. It seems the party is thinking twice about the impact of this theme as people begin to understand what the impact would be for them. The UK has the highest working hours in Europe so Brits are unlikely to embrace volunteerism - or at least the model of it forwarded by Cameron - as a vote-winning policy.'
These evasions left some viewers unsure where they stood with the Conservative leader. Wolfstar's Bruce termed the PM elect's performance 'ephemeral'.
Similarly, Clegg no longer appeared under the enchantment of total novelty but remained self-assured and eager to engage challenges. 'The Lib Dem leader was on the offensive,' Kendall said. 'Knowing policies like caveated pro-Europeanism and discarding Trident would come under attack from Brown and Cameron, he took them on before his opponents got a chance to accuse him of policy weakness in these areas. He was on the front foot. His performance was rich in both presentation and policy.'
But Brown looked to puncture some of his opponent's liberal promises of 'change' and appeal to those voting with the implicit warning, articulated by Collins, 'that the electorate must be careful not to back a particular party just to cock a snoop at the establishment and show themselves dissatisfied.'
Meanwhile, the Lib Dem leader's greatest political strength may lie in the ability to accept the most likely outcome, that of a hung parliament, without any sense of disgrace. Instead, he implied that it would represent an unprecedented victory, and declared this 'one of the most exciting elections.'
He responded to a question on whether a coalition government of the best talents would be the best way forward for Britain, saying: 'It will be your choice. If you decide that no one here deserves an outright majority, then of course we will just need to be open about it and talk to each other. We'll talk to each other in order to provide the good government, the sound government that you deserve because you deserve a government where we put your interests first and don't allow everything constantly to be hijacked by short term political point scoring.'
Ironically, this ardent idealism no doubt scored many points for the Lib Dem leader. For how long remains to be seen.