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Britain's first TV debate: a snoozer

Strict rule keep UK party leaders on their talking points.

Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown, opposition Conservative Party leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg take part in the first of Britain's leadership election debates at ITV studios in Manchester, April 15, 2010. (Ken McKay/ITV/Handout/Reuters)

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.