Britain's first TV debate: a snoozer

LONDON, United Kingdom — For a political event heavily hyped as the big game-changer in Britain’s closely fought general election, the country’s first-ever televised leadership debate will perhaps be best remembered for its dullness.

Anyone tuning in to Thursday’s broadcast — the first of three debates before the May 6 vote — in the hope of seeing political credibility sluiced away by a Nixon-esque flop sweat or Ford-ish gaffe would have been sorely disappointed.

With little to distinguish the three participants — Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, David Cameron of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg — other than their politically appropriate necktie colors, it was also hard to name an overall victor.

As each leader delivered solid and unsurprising answers to fairly predictable questions (this week on domestic policies), what was billed as a “historic” event instead resembled a daytime TV quiz show with far less at stake than the country’s top job.

You can’t blame the British press and public (11 million of whom were expected to tune-in for the first of three on-screen clashes) for getting excited; there has been over half-a-century of waiting for a televised debate since the epochal Kennedy-Nixon clash aired in the U.S.

Sadly, the reason for the wait — decades of wrangling between political parties, broadcasters and regulators over the protocols for such events — resulted in such a rigidly structured format (defined by no less than 76 rules, including a ban on audience applause) that actual debate was thin on the ground.

Instead, the candidates squandered limited opportunities to challenge rivals, using allotted one-minute slots to trot out slogans and skim over their policies.

All three candidates appeared mildly ill-at-ease as the debate got underway, a measure perhaps of the huge build-up and the knowledge that every statement, rebuttal and gesture would be pored over in forensic detail by pundits for days afterward.

As the minutes ticked away, they visibly hit their strides, easily tackling questions on immigration, education, finance and the recent expenses scandal that has blighted British politics — all key election issues.

Some of the skills with which all three candidates parried their rivals’ thrusts can perhaps be credited to the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions in parliament. This weekly ritual can ressemble a brutal session of schoolyard taunts where only the whip-smart survive.

That said, while Brown’s heavyweight intellect provides him ample armor on the benches of government, even his close advisers say he struggles to project the warmth and personality sought by the public.

Ahead of the debates, former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s spinmeister Alistair Campbell revealed he had been summoned out of retirement to help an uneasy Brown polish his performance. Cameron also admitted to nerves, while Clegg reportedly spent the afternoon wandering the countryside to seek inspiration.

Not that Clegg needed inspiration. As the leader of the underdog party in what is often billed as a two-horse race, the fact that he was being given screen time equal to the main leaders could be seen as a victory in itself. Live audience surveys conducted by the British media during the debate showed he was well-received.

Cameron too scored a few points with strong answers to tricky questions, while Brown — though he struggled at times to control his legendary temper — at least used his sense of humor to good effect, at one point thanking Cameron for Conservative party campaign posters that use rarely published photographs of the prime minister smiling.

In closing, Brown deployed levity again to acknowledge the unlikely feat that 90 minutes of pure politics had held onto an audience in the millions, even though there were no Simon Cowell-fronted entertainment shows scheduled to lure viewers away.

“I know we’re not up against the ‘X-Factor’ or ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ but I hope people will have been able to stay with us,” he said.

With two debates still to come, it remains to be seen whether the viewers continue to show up.