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How Labour saw Brown and Clegg in 2010: jokes need to be short or he can mangle them

By Philip Cowley.

Yesterday’s post detailing how Labour perceived David Cameron’s debating skills before the 2010 leaders’ debate was a bit of a success.  Several people asked if I’d seen the material about Nick Clegg or Gordon Brown. Indeed, I had.  And so, again with the permission of its author, Theo Bertram, here is Labour’s pre-debate briefing on both Brown and Clegg.  As with yesterday’s post, this information was prepared by Bertram to help brief Michael Sheehan, who Labour had brought in from the US to help with their preparations.

The material on Brown was the most extensive and detailed of the three leaders.  Just like that examining Cameron, it was a mix of both his strengths and weaknesses, and was often brutally honest in identifying weaknesses:

–   “he prefers argument, facts, and detail to carefully honed lines.  This gives him an advantage in that his answers sound thoughtful, genuine, and substantial – but it can also make him sound leaden-footed if Cameron is successful in delivering a well-rehearsed rhetorical flourish

–   he is actually more effective when talking on a more personal level, for example about his family, but he finds this very difficult and dislikes doing so

–   he is best when his answers are bold, short arguments: too often he needlessly chooses to mete out his lines with facts and statistics which make the listener lose interest and are not essential to the argument

–   he struggles to stick to anything but the substance of a line – jokes, attacks and conversational bridges need to be short or he can mangle them

–   he has a deep powerful voice – he does not switch between tones well but he does sound convincing

–   there are two key tones that suit him best

  • one is a strong, confident voice, rich with experience and wisdom, that is at its best when it makes a clear and simple argument (not a litany of facts) about something he passionately believes in – his chest puffs out and he looks Cameron in the eye as he says it
  • the other tone is more rarely heard – it is much softer, more humble – it is slower, thoughtful, and his posture is more bowed – it is a voice which perfectly expresses condolence and even a vulnerability – he absolutely has the power to move people with this voice

–   under pressure, he is prone to fall into detailed responses that sound like excuses not answers

–   when under pressure his ‘tells’ are less perceptible than Cameron but you can hear his voice shrink

–   he can be provoked into anger by things he judges to be unfair or too personal – he finds it hard to resist crying foul at these points and is poor at hiding his discomfort

–   in longer interviews he forgets the camera and on two occasions has stood up to leave interviews while the camera is still rolling”

The briefing on Nick Clegg is the shortest of the three, not least because (as the briefing notes) ‘most of the time he simply appears anonymous – he has little room to impose himself on the political stage and this seems to frustrate him more than anything’.  But it added presciently, ‘he will relish the platform the TV debates give his party’.  In full, it read:

–   “he rarely commands attention or authority in the House of Commons, mainly because of the physical position in the Chamber from which we speaks, and the tendency of Labour and Conservative MPs to shout him down

–   he tends to sound moderate, fair and reasonable

–   but his strongest performances have been where he has been moved to anger at injustice

–   on issues like Iraq (which his party opposed) he is able to sound justified and genuine without being smug or droning on

–   most of the time he simply appears anonymous – he has little room to impose himself on the political stage and this seems to frustrate him more than anything – he will relish the platform the TV debates give his party

–   his party’s tendency to sit on the fence makes him appear pleasant but dull, uninspiring but unthreatening

–   he is continually exasperated by the confidence and braggadocio with which the two main leaders dismiss him

–   however he should not be underestimated: Gordon and Cameron are used to fighting each other – only Clegg is well used to fighting with both hands – albeit weakly”.

As Dennis Kavanagh and I showed in our book on the 2010 election, once Labour and the Conservatives began their full debate rehearsals, they soon realised just what an opportunity the debates would give Nick Clegg.

Published inBritish PoliticsLabourLiberal Democrats

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