Ask the Chancellors: the post-match analysis

Let’s start off with the sentence you’d expect me to write: Vince Cable won last night’s Channel 4 Ask the Chancellors debate. There, I’ve said it.

Of course, it’s not just me saying it. It’s also The Guardian (“Vince Cable draws first blood”), the Telegraph (both Ben Brogan and Janet Daley), New Statesman (“Cable triumphs”), Channel 4 (Cable “man of the match”), Financial Times, Spectator and Independent (“Cable comes out on top”). And I’ve probably missed a few others.

Vince Cable

Vince started off with two big advantages, and two big disadvantages.

First, the advantages: he understands the economy, and how to convey a message to voters, like no other British politician. He looks the part – a very reasonable, persuasive bank manager – but he can also twist the knife with a turn of phrase that leaves its victim sprawling and the audience smiling.

The second advantage was a much simpler one: he was stood in the middle of the set, and – as a tall man – was able to dominate the proceedings, by turns interrogator, at other times umpire. But always in control.

Now to the disadvantages.

First, the expectations. Poll after poll over the last few weeks shown Vince to be the “People’s Choice” as Chancellor, the latest being a poll last night specially commissioned for Channel 4‘s debate. As a result, the pressure on Vince to take the debate by storm was immense: a low-key competent performance just wasn’t an option for him. (I’ll come back to that in a moment, when discussing George Osborne).

Secondly, a Vince win was pretty much factored into everyone’s expectations. Which means that now he’s generally accepted to have won the debate, “all” he’s done is meet folks’ expectations. It can be a tough gig being the nation’s favourite.

George Osborne

But what of George Osborne?

You can hear the collective sigh of relief from the right-wing today that their boy, although clearly the most nervous, didn’t goof too badly. There was only one clanger, when the Tory shadow chancellor attempted to big-up his credentials by declaring, “I’ve been shadow chancellor for five years so I’ve been watching people do the job.” We’ve all been in interviews where one of the candidates tries to stretch their thin CV to cover the gaps in their experience: it’s always excruciating to watch.

Other than that, Mr Osborne was not too bad. It was a low-key, competent performance (to coin a phrase), and it’s come to something when the Tories can believe that to be good enough for the man who might in a matter of weeks be running the British economy.

It reminds me of the line from The West Wing, when White House press officer CJ Cregg worries that the Republican candidate could be seen to win the debate because of the low expectations of him: “If the whole thing is, he can’t tie his shoelaces and it turns out he can, then that is the ball game.”

Well, George Osborne can tie his own shoelaces. But the real problem for the Tories – which last night’s debate laid bare – is not that Mr Osborne is incompetent. He isn’t. The problem is that everyone can see that he just isn’t quite ready yet: he’s a bit callow, a bit out-of-his-depth, a bit rabbit-in-headlights. And the problem that’s even bigger than that one is that the economy should really be the Tories strongest card at this election – and it isn’t.

What should really worry the Tories about Mr Osborne’s performance is its opportunity cost. Last night, the best that could be said about the Tory shadow chancellor was that he didn’t lose his party any votes. He just about pulled it off.

But imagine, just imagine, if instead of George Osborne the Tories had fielded Ken Clarke, the nation’s second favourite politician to be Chancellor. Suddenly Vince would have had an equal. And that would have changed the dynamics of the debate quite dramatically. But David Cameron stuck by his friend, and in doing so has cost his party dear.

Alistair Darling

Alastair Darling was also on the stage. He did alright.

Last night’s winner:

Channel 4 (for winning back some much-needed news-credibility having been comprehensively out-manouevred by Sky News over the leaders’ debates) and Krishnan Guru-Murthy for excellent chairing. Oh, and Vince, obvs.

Last night’s (sore) loser:

Tim Montgomerie for – alone among commentators – scoring Vince as the debate loser, and for alleging without evidence that Channel 4 had packed the audience with Lib Dems.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Utterly unfair on Tim Montgomerie. The Wall Street Journal, considered a firmly right-wing newspaper IN AMERICA of all places, thought Osborne won it and everyone else was a socialist. So that’s alright then.

  • Bill le Breton 30th Mar '10 - 12:50pm

    A clap-o-meter would confirm that it was his aggressive anti-establishment lines which went down best.

    For example following a denoucement of Labour for causing the economic crisis, he said to loud cheers, that the Conservatives now wanted another turn “to get their noses in the trough and reward their rich backers”

    When he was most militant – yes militant – he was most in tune with the mood of the audience.

    There is still a great deal of anger ‘out of doors’ which Parliamentarians forget at their peril.

    Cable caught the public mood for both consensus and justice very well.

  • Let’s hope Clegg can follow up with a good showing. I think we need to tap in to the angry ‘plague on both your houses’ theme while also putting forward some good positive policy proposals.

    We also need to keep alive the whole Ashcroft and house flipping theme. It is still relevant and important, yet it seems to be receding in people’s memories as the campaign wears on.

  • Bill le Breton 30th Mar '10 - 1:41pm

    I do so agree with you Robert, but I think that last night’s reaction in the audience shows that these things are nor actually receding from people’s minds – either the Westminster Village thinks that they are receding or it is hoping that they are receding. Either way we should be voicing them. Our job must be to speak for everone outside that corrupt village and its arbitary actions.
    A couple of hundred years ago the Parliamentarians spoke with disdain about ‘out of doors’ by which they meant thos not ‘in the House’. ‘Out of doors’ there then a strong appetitie for reform. There is too, now.
    This campaign needs to be fought ‘out of doors’.

  • Roger Roberts 30th Mar '10 - 2:48pm

    Guardian Poll on “Who came out top ? ” gave Vince 48.6 %, Darling 26.8, Osborne 24.6

  • Liberal Eye 30th Mar '10 - 2:49pm

    Bill, you’re absolutely right about the anger out here in the real world. There has been a slowly dawning realisation over many years that ‘the system’ in this country is in some way broken and dysfunctional. Even the Tories are onto this with their ‘Broken Britain’ meme. The combination of financial collapse and Parliamentary sleeze has finally caused the pot of anger to boil over; it has revealed what many had already come to suspect – that the experts are, more often than not, self-serving numskulls who have presided very comfortably (ie comfortable for themselves though not for the country at large) over decades of drift and decline.

    The difficulty is that believing as most now do that the system is broken in some way is very different from knowing in precisely what way. And without accurate diagnosis there can be no cure.

    Herein lies both the opportunity and the problem for Lib Dems. The opportunity is that if we can identify the things that are wrong, voters will identify with us – they will rapidly come to see the Lib Dems as the party with a world-view much like their own. That is 80% of the battle for hearts and minds. If we can then go a small step further and come up with practical fixes we will be swept to power by a tidal wave of support.

    The problem side of this is that we are, as a party, quite remarkably bad at policy; 20+ years after the merger there is still no coherent narrative despite having many excellent people (not to mention even more fellow-travellers). Analysis is usually superficial and policies are too often wholly unconvincing.

    If we are honest we must admit that, in the final analysis, the policy-making process crafted at merger two decades ago is a failure. Reform, like charity, should begin at home. If we fix the policy process for one that delivers the polls will change with remarkable speed.

  • Liberal Eye 30th Mar '10 - 6:44pm

    @Niklas: As ever (and as with the country as a whole) it’s relatively straightforward to see that something is wrong with the patient, much harder to come up with a diagnosis followed by a prescription.

    That said, I have some tentative ideas which I will try and set out in my blog in the near future. For now let me just say that I think it’s primarily a problem of structure and approach, not of people with which we are well endowed.

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  • By Top of the Blogs: The Golden Dozen #163 on Thu 8th April 2010 at 9:47 am.

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