One of the downsides of being married is that one is never the first person to post about a recent event. (There are fringe benefits, however). So I imagine that the LibDemosphere is already awash with accounts of tonight’s Newsnight, however, where Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne battled it out in a leadership special.
It began pretty painfully. Having shunted us to second billing after Alistair Darling lost the personal and bank details of half the British population, we were then met by the two contenders failing to agree on who should start, so that Jeremy Paxman was obliged to ostentatiously “toss the Euro” to see who should begin.
Chris won, and began with his one minute speech in which he stressed the need to be radical, to give away power, to decentralise, to be “Fairer and Greener” (remember that one!), and stressed his ability to get our message across. He appeared a little hurried; a little tense. Nick was calmer and better prepared, and began by explaining that he did not want to be leader because it was an end in itself, but because he wanted to be part of a liberal society, “to make politics less boring” and to “speak like a human being.” Oh, and make Britain “fairer and greener”. I feel they rested my earlier case!
On the question (so oft repeated) as to whether anybody should care, Chris pointed out quite fairly that his background in economics is extremely germane; we are undoubtedly entering into a period of economic stability where are leader with a sound understanding of economics will be needed. Nick, on the other hand, emphasised the need to reach out to the non-voting 40 per cent, a plea that carries much emotional but little practical weight (remember, three quarters of them weren’t voting 30 years ago, either).
Paxman then resorted to his favourite leadership head-to-head tactic (and one I actually enjoy) which was to ask for straight answers to straight questions: the “yes or no” round. I preferred Nick’s answers for the same reason that I preferred Alan Johnson’s in Labour’s deputy leadership: he gave the succinct answers requested. Nick categorically ruled out in one word adopting school vouchers (the fool!), while both agreed to rule in Trident “right now”, but Huhne waffled whereas Nick was succinct. On tax, Chris stressed the desire to see “broader shoulders bearing more of the burden” (which one assumes is not-very-complex code for more “progressive” taxation) while Nick emphasised the reduction of taxes on income and the shift onto environmental taxation (which some might argue was Huhne’s home ground).
On immigration, however, Nick put a ball firmly in the back of my net and that of many Liberal Democrats: asked whether there had been “too much immigration into Britain” he stated categorically no. He is of course correct. But I was very disappointed by Chris’s answer, that while immigration had been good overall, some communities had suffered from too much, too quickly. It was particularly worrying that he cited workers in his Eastleigh constituency that had had to deal with increased competition, as though they should be protected from outsiders coming into their town to compete with them for business. This had the whiff of protectionism about it, and contrasted with Nick’s explanation that the problem with immigration was that resources were not provided to local authorities by government (which is too slow to recognise population shifts in towns and districts), that they were not required to learn English, and that a lack of exit controls meant that we had a distorted image of who was in our country.
On the Euro, both agreed that Britain should not be a member now – which is orthodox Lib Dem policy – and neither wanted to get dragged into discussing future coalitions. Chris suggested that electoral reform would lead to a more sensible approach to partnership politics, while Nick got a little shirty with Paxman (which I quite enjoyed).
To conclude, both said that they liked each other personally and, when pressed, Nick said that the “Calamity Clegg” dossier was mean but that he could put it behind him, while Chris said that he took full responsibility, that he apologised, but that it had been drafted by a junior member of his team. Both promised a place in the future shadow-cabinet to his opponent.
While not hugely informative on substance (a couple of issues aside) it nonetheless was clear who won on style. This was summed up best by Mrs. Polemic – so far a Huhne fan – who was fairly frank towards the end in recognising that “Clegg’s wiped the floor with Huhne, hasn’t he?” The question was rhetorical, and justifiably so. I don’t know if this performance alone will have swayed her, but it may have swayed some. I’m looking forward to the hustings more and more.