When doing qualitative research, people are sometimes willing to talk to you or to show you material but only on a background basis; that is, that it can inform what you write, but you cannot quote from it. Amongst the many documents that Dennis Kavanagh and I were shown when writing our book on the 2010 general election, was a document written by the Number 10 staffer, Theo Bertram (who would play Nick Clegg in Labour’s private debate rehearsals) and intended as an introductory note for Michael Sheehan, who Labour had brought in from the US to help with their preparations. It outlined the strengths and weaknesses – as Labour perceived them – of the three party leaders when dealing with interviews and prime ministers’ questions. When the book came out, we were not allowed to quote directly from it, but today – on the third anniversary of the first leader’s debate, and with Theo Bertram’s permission – here is how Labour then saw David Cameron:
– “he can gear change well between moods – he is well able to pitch his posture and tone to suit the subject
– he never loses awareness of the camera
– he has a catalogue of personal stories and he is at his best when he is talking about his family
– he occasionally feels stagey – for example, though he feigns exasperation well, it can feel manufactured when he feigns anger
– his lines are well written and he sticks to them
– he never steers too far away from his top lines – but if pinned on detail he can quickly appear evasive as he attempts to return to his top lines
– when he is pinned on an issue or forced off his top lines to respond off the cuff, he can sometimes appear tetchy, or even cross
– he has some clear ‘tells’: his face reddens and his hands shake when he is caught on the back foot
– when he is caught in a panicked moment his response is to attack but at these times he is prone to scoff or even snort derision, especially in confrontation with Gordon
– occasionally his voice has a clipped sharpness – partly from his accent but also from a perceptible sense of self-importance and impatience with others”.
Three years on may seem like a different world politically (three years ago today, we were on the eve of Cleggmania) but these ten points still feel like a remarkably accurate summary of the Prime Minister’s debating weaknesses – and strengths.