England’s Political Pandas

It’s a salutary measure of smug, fat democracies that the substance and ire of elections are forgotten almost before the crumpled campaign literature has been recycled into budget toilet paper. It now seems fairly embarrassing that we in the British press spent so much furrowed-brow time on the broadcast of the first-ever American-style head-to-head debate by party leaders on April 15. Should they sit, or should they stand? What color would the background be? Could they talk to one another? Can you rebut rebutted rebuttal? Would there be a live audience, as well as the comatose one at home? It was like getting a ménage à trois of pandas to mate.

The aggregated wisdom of the news media and the polls was that the debates came out as neutral for the Conservative candidate, David Cameron; as a predictable and confirming disaster for the Labour prime minister, Gordon Brown; and a surprise victory for the priggishly keen new boy, the Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg. After the event, all the backroom party planners and panjandrums were privately infuriated: the debates had overshadowed and laid waste their expensive and minutely coordinated election strategies. The synchronized unfolding of policies was plowed under by the blunt and simplistic debates, which themselves were reduced to sound bites and “X Factor” polls.

The American nature of the event made the entire election even more presidential-manqué, negating each party’s platform, reducing members of Parliament to cheerleading the leader. The broadcast added momentum to a personality-driven style of government that had been started by Mr. Brown’s predecessor, Tony Blair. This may be the last time that a man like Mr. Brown — plain and puffy, with bitten fingernails and a sincere glass eye — can realistically run for prime minister.

In the end, the debates swung enough votes to the Liberal Democrats to parlay them into a role as junior partner in a new government, their best result since the days of detachable collars. But if you trust your fortune to TV, then you must accept TV’s plotting, and any soap aficionado could have warned Mr. Clegg to be careful what he wished for. He has now been cast as the lightning rod and flak-catcher for all the sturm und drang over the Tories’ economic cuts and hard truths. Behind this human shield, David Cameron looks surprisingly statesmanlike and unruffled.

The Labour Party learned its lesson, and chose a new, younger, fresher, pinker liberal leader (Ed Miliband) who so far has been a spectacularly bad piece of casting, an insignificant disaster. Privately, party mandarins are already writing off the next election. But before then, we have a TV royal wedding. Let’s hope that turns out better than the first televised one.

A. A. Gill, contributing editor at Vanity Fair and author of the forthcoming A. A. Gill Is Further Away.

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