Who Wants To Be A Prime Minister: Britain’s first televised leaders’ debate

Everybody’s saying that Nick Clegg won this week’s edition of Who Wants To Be A Prime Minister, and that’s fair enough in terms of which one of them you’d most like to find yourself stuck in an airport departure lounge with when you had toothache. Once the volcanic ash has settled, however, time will surely reveal the night’s true victor was actually the host, Police Camera Action! presenter Alastair Stewart, who has long suffered under the burden of being the British broadcaster most likely to physically turn into Alan Partridge at any second, but has now thrown off the mockery and finally staked his place in history, as you sensed he always felt he would. (Should you be in any doubt, check out his Wikipedia page, which was updated with almost suspicious speed. It’s now there in black and white pixels: “On 15th April 2010, Stewart was involved in the making of history.”)

As far as TV landmarks go, though, this first ever live leaders’ debate wasn’t quite up there with Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, Nelson Mandela walking free, or the time the young fellow phoned Saturday Superstore to call the collected members of Matt Bianco a rude word. Political pundits might pick over the nuances of the verbal jousting, but from the armchair perspective, the most truly riveting moments were the very beginning and very end of the programme.

Given that – apparently – we’ve all been clamouring for one of these things for 50 years, as the programme commenced, the big question was what it would actually look like now it was here.

With its exciting ITV music, flat bright lighting, eerily silent audience made up entirely of Fast Show characters and Stewart bobbing around like a man made of pure, rigid, angry excitement, the answer turned out to be a faintly nightmarish mix of The Weakest Link, The Jeremy Kyle Show, an incredibly disappointing Kraftwerk gig, and a home shopping presentation in which three presenters had accidentally turned up in the same slot to sell three slightly different versions of the same cheap MP3 player, and couldn’t decide whether to acknowledge their mistake or just pretend the others weren’t there.

In those nervy opening seconds, David Cameron just edged it as Leader Most Resembling A Tired Rabbit Caught In A Microwave, but soon relaxed into his patented stride, talking with the easygoing swing of a passport photobooth, reprogrammed to spit out vaguely apposite anecdotes instead of instructions about swivelling your seat. (Cameron, it emerged, has been everywhere and spoke to everyone “just the other day” – his most intriguing encounter being that with “a 40 year old black man” who told him he’d been in the Royal Navy “for 30 years.”)

To his credit, Gordon Brown broke the permafrost around 25 minutes in and opened some actual interplay with his mercilessly rehearsed spontaneous gag about the Tory posters. Brown missed a trick, however, in not capitalising on his greatest TV strength: that striking resemblance to Tony Hancock. The big chance came during the discussion on how much money the Conservatives are planning to take out of the economy, but the line audiences were aching to hear – “£6 Billion? That’s nearly an armful!” – sadly never came.

Clegg, meanwhile, began to emerge as the alpha-leader thanks in main to his dicey tactic of employing the controversial hand-in-the-pocket style. Frame-by-frame analysis has since revealed Clegg based his stance on performance footage of Frank Sinatra performing at The Sands in the mid-1960s. Don’t be surprised if, during the next debate, he reaches down to the shelf beneath his lectern and produces not a glass of water, but a bourbon and a trilby.

Aside from the Cambot announcing he was planning to stockpile nuclear arms to go to war with China, more or less, nothing of any note happened during the debate itself. Nothing, anyway, as entertaining as the brilliantly awkward final moments, after the event was over, when it became clear that, even though it had been months in the planning, no one had actually considered how to finish it. A Great British tradition.

As the Caminator tried to talk The Chairman Of The Clegg into joining him in an uncomfortable Chariots Of Fire-style group salute, Brown, old campaigning impulses afire,  left them eating his dust, and threw himself straight into the audience, busy clambering around shaking any hands he could find. The other two were soon practically pushing each other over to get in there after him.

It was a telling moment. The idea was that televised leaders’ debates would drag Parliament into the 21st century – well, the middle of the 20th, anyway. But here you saw the MP DNA revealed. This Politics, Camera, Action stuff is all very well. But nothing will ever beat pressing the flesh.

Published in The Herald, April 16 2010