Winner Clegg dodges fray of battle in debate

April 16, 2010

Tim ClarkTimothy Clark and David Greatbatch are professors at Durham Business School. The opinions expressed are their own. –

The debate is finished and the polls are in.  They consistently show that Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was rated the best performer on the night.  Some instant polls put him over twenty percent ahead of Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron.

Running up to the debate tonight most commentators agreed that Clegg had the most to gain given his general lack of exposure and profile with the electorate when compared to other two party leaders.

For the first time he was treated the same as the other party leaders.  His success tonight partly emanates from a much increased profile with many viewers, but his positive poll ratings also benefited from a number of features from the debate itself.

First, it was very noticeable that Brown sought to align himself with Clegg by mentioning on a number of occasions that Clegg and he were in agreement with one another.

Although Clegg rejected Brown’s assertion that they agreed on reform of the Houses of Commons and Lords, Brown nevertheless kept pointing out their similarities whilst attacking Cameron.

Indeed, on several occasions Brown clearly tried to unsettle Cameron by interrupting his answers and not permitting him develop his answers.  In contrast, Cameron attacked Brown and occasionally Clegg.

Thus Clegg was attacked the least.  He was thus distanced from the occasional close-quarter skirmishes between Brown and Cameron that reinforced his general point that he represented something different.  This was reinforced by his position to left of Cameron and Brown which gave him the opportunity to turn and become an onlooker as the other two party leaders debated amongst themselves.

The question is will he be able to accomplish this in the next two debates.  He may not occupy the same position on the stage.  After tonight Brown and Cameron may seek to be more aggressive and direct in their attacks on Liberal Democrat policy.  As for Brown, it will be interesting to see whether he completely abandons his approach of seeking to align himself with Clegg against Cameron.

It may not only be a case of once bitten twice shy.  There are clear policy differences between Labour and the Liberal Democrats on many of the issues covered in tonight’s debate.  Labour may decide he should aim his fire power at Clegg as well as Cameron.  In the case of Cameron, presumably he will seek to divide his fire between Brown and Clegg.  If he occupies the same position on stage as Clegg did today he could perhaps use the opportunity to reinforce his separateness from the other two parties.

Second, Clegg made the greatest and most successful attempts to connect with the audience.  He built a stronger rapport with the audience members than the other party leaders and this is reflected in much subsequent comment about his natural and engaging style tonight.   In his initial answers to each question he consciously mentioned the questioner’s name.

He listed the questioners by name in his final summary.  He also sought to make eye contact when the questioner was not always visible.  By doing this he was reducing the social distance between himself and the audience members and using his connection with a single audience member to build rapport more generally.

As the closing credits rolled it was interesting to see Brown walk directly towards the audience and shake the hands of those seated in the front row.  This was a clear attempt to make a connection with the audience.  Going forward it will be interesting to see how each party leader learns from some of the conventions that were established tonight and adjusts their style for next week’s debate perhaps to create greater engagement with audience members.

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