Better than badminton

Friday, January 27th, 2006

Finally have time to write up my thoughts about the Any Questions leadership debate, from the perspective of being in the audience.

The comically long queue outside the hall, which wound along corridors and through doors and almost to the Surrey / Hampshire border, made it look like the event was going to be packed, but in the end there were a few spare seats at the back.

The organisers had given everyone coloured squares of paper to indicate which candidate they were supporting, or that they were undecided, and the stewards were directing people to different areas of the hall depending on the colour of their marker. Since we're a split household they tried to separate us, but I stamped my little feet and said we'd go home if we weren't allowed to sit together and they let us pick our location.

We seemed to end up in the 'undecided' section, very near the back and next to what seemed to be the Huhne supporters' section – it had noticeably more empty space in it than the other blocks. Susan Kramer and David Howarth sat at the back of it, like old-style Soviet commissars waiting to machine-gun the troops if they turned to flee – although both were chatty and friendly afterwards.

Behind us were a very nice but slightly baffled couple who didn't really have any particular thoughts about the leadership or even, so far as we could tell, the Liberal Democrats. They'd turned up for their badminton class as usual and found that the hall had been requisitioned for a radio programme. Offered the opportunity to stay and watch, they settled down in the back row. I'd have loved to ask them what they thought of it afterwards, but they were out of the door too fast for us.

Every seat had a photocopied sheet on it from the BBC with potted biographies of the candidates on it. A typo in Ming's section, where the West Lothian Question was mentioned, quoted him as saying “I have never had a problem with Brutishness”. A useful quality in a leader, I would have thought. Sadly for Sir Menzies, he left his best answer behind in the warm-up, where candidates were asked a light-hearted question so that microphone levels could be checked.

The question was, essentially, “doesn't Sir Menzies have better things to do on Burns Night than come here?” and he came across by far the best in the responses – the other two were a little over-keen to be amusing, hadn't fully settled down, and were just a bit too eager to connect with the audience. Ming was urbane, amusing, and even a little scandalous when he said that, in reality, Burns Night lasted several nights and consisted of equal parts haggis and whisky – with rather more of the latter for some people. There was a sharp intake of breath across the entire hall as everyone similtaneously thought the one word “Kennedy”, but Sir Menzies looked inscrutible, as if he'd just said “fuck” in front of a vicar and was quietly enjoying the confusion.

I won't say that was his high point, but once the actual broadcast began all three candidates acquitted themselves equally well without actually managing to outshine the others.

There's little point in running through the debate point-by-point – Nick Barlow liveblogged it with impressive accuracy, for one thing – but it seems reasonable to give my impressions of the three candidates.

  • Ming is still trying too hard – he's at his best when he relaxes and speaks with authority, but he seems at times as if he's striving to make some kind of connection that he fears would otherwise not be made. It doesn't help – it just makes him sound over-anxious.
  • Chris has improved as a speaker since Meeting the Challenge and – partly because of the format – also sounded more well-rounded in subject matter. But he still doesn't sound like a leader to me – can't quite put my finger on why. His voice is quite extraordinary, a beautifully modulated baritone.
  • Simon was mostly as powerful and as passionate as we all know he can be and I, for one, saw nothing that would scare the horses in Tory heartlands. But the danger is, of course, as much in how he is portrayed as in what he actually says and if he allowed himself to get sidetracked into the long grass occasionally, for example over English devolution, that could easily be because his mind was on what the next day's Sun was going to say.

I marked it afterwards as a score draw, and I think if you'd arrived as a Lib Dem member with no idea of who you were going to vote for you'd have left none the wiser. On the other hand, if you'd arrived as an ordinary member of the public, perhaps a floating voter, you'd have been greatly reassured by what you saw – the event was a good advert for the party and, if we can have a few more like this, the ship might yet be steadied.

Incidentally, if you're reading this via the Lib Dem Blog Aggregator, my posts don't show up on it until eight hours after I make them – the result, I think, of some problem with time zones that I can't troubleshoot.

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I'm Andy Darley. Sometimes I want to say things. This is where I do it.