The Recurring Themes that Explain Last Night's Leaders' Debate
It was supposed to be a confusing punch up, but instead it was a tightly choreographed fight scene.
We were promised a confusing punch-up, but it was more like a tightly choreographed fight scene in a revival of West Side Story. In the end, all the key players had so much to lose (and very little to win) that the Leaders Debate quickly turned into a series of ticked boxes, as the politicos deliberately tried not to test each other's boundaries, instead engaging in some kind of tacit mutual pact to stick to their individual scripts.
So if it felt a bit formulaic, then maybe, just maybe, that's because it was. After all, at least 14 oft repeated tropes formed part of a debate that went on longer than most Tarkovsky films. For ease of reference, we've listed them below.
THE WEIRDO WHO GETS TO POSE AS A "MEMBER OF THE PUBLIC"
The first question, as ever on these occasions, came from a 12-year-old child prodigy in a suit who looked like he was vying to be the William Hague of 2032. He even went by the improbable name of Johnny Tudor – a sort of English Heritage take on Johnny Bravo, and exactly the kind of crap marginal seat-superhero who wanted to know uninteresting things about the deficit that he could have just looked up on the internet anyway.
THE HIGHLY TRADITIONAL ATTEMPT TO DIFFERENTIATE POLICIES THAT ARE ALL THE SAME
In answering him, all of the parties then did their best angel-pin-head-dance to try and tell you why they were a) unbelievably financially responsible when it came to the economy, but b) totally going to give you lots of free cool shit, from tax breaks for chihuahas to free Now TV subscriptions with every hernia operation you ordered on the NHS.
It turned out that all the parties have different platforms on cutting the deficit. Some of them will cut it reaaaaallly slowly at first then reeaaaaaallly quickly at the end. Some will cut it reaaaaallly quickly at first then reeaaaaaallly slowly at the end. Some will cut it reaaallly slowly in the middle, then use that bit to cut around the edges slightly faster. Some will cut it in strips. Some will cut it in a mobius pattern. In summary: everyone would like to cut the deficit but everyone would also like to spend your money.
THE OFTEN-REPEATED DEBATING FALLBACK YOU WISH THEY'D FORGET
David Cameron's severely disabled son died at the age of six, in NHS care. That is so very horrible. But perhaps, David, the best way to memorialise young Ivan Cameron would be not to use him as a debating point every time your back is against the wall over funding the NHS? Perhaps it would be to go for a long stroll in a quiet garden, and think fondly about the time he said he was scared of monsters and you tucked him in and told him "there are no monsters here, my boy, sleep tight now", and then let a single tear pucker onto your waxy cheek and drop down onto the frosty mid-Winter grass? Amiright or amiright?
THE MELANIE PHILLIPS ON QUESTION TIME MEMORIAL AWARD FOR SEVERE COMPASSION FAILURE
There's telling Bulgarians they should get to the back of the social housing queue, and then there's telling several thousand AIDS patients to go die. When Farage accused NHS AIDS patients who are not British nationals of health tourism, it seemed to stumble into the middle of the room and just lie there for a few minutes before anyone else could figure out a way to respond to it, like being told you have cancer, or, um, AIDS.
THE CRASHINGLY OBVIOUS TWITTER GAG YOU SAW IN EIGHT DIFFERENT FORMS
Was that Farage was going to tell Natalie Bennet to piss off back to her native Australia.
THE SADLY UNAVOIDABLE POINTLESSNESS OF THE MINNOWS
For viewers already puzzled by Natalie Bennett, the inclusion of Plaid Cymru's own PolBot 3000 model, Leanne Wood, was pretty much the final straw. Wood commands a party that isn't even in power in a country that comprises one in 20 voters. She is basically less important than the 15th most senior person in the Labour Party, and her policy platform seems to be, "to be a less interesting SNP". For most viewers who hadn't considered Welsh politics in years, the mere sight of Plaid Cymru was enough to make them realise that this disastrous Union experiment had gone on long enough.
THE HAMMERING OF THE THINGS THE FOCUS GROUPS LIKED IN THE LAST DEBATE
After he lost the polls but won the Twitter war last time out, Eddie's people had evidently picked up on his "good points" in the last (non) debate, and decided to make him amplify them. So we had Ed The Super-Passionate, his voice quimming with hoity emotion as he bleated about the NHS, sounding every bit like he was having his prostate milked by a gorgeous young proctologist. This tactic still seems to be working for him, and at this stage it's a case of "something's got to".
THE MUCH-TRAILED HARPING ON ZERO HOURS
Then, sensing blood in Cameron's wobble in front of Paxman over zero hours contracts, Ed's people had decided to crack that peanut with a diamond-drill jackhammer. After a 120 minutes of him thumping them from all angles, it began to sound like this was everything to him. A week ago, no one knew what they were. Now, it sounded like Miliband's dad had been killed by a Contract Killer on Zero Hours and he'd sworn an oath on the brow of Primrose Hill to avenge him.
THE INEVITABLE LIB DEM RETURN TO MIDDLING-OUT
Do you want to cut a lot? Do you want to cut a little? What if it all just seems a bit confusing and makes your head hurt when you try and decide who's right or wrong? Then obviously you should be voting Lib Dem. Often accused of being wishy-washy, Clegg was actively turning insipidness into his USP by using his closing speech to announce that said he'd cut less than the Tories, more than Labour. That was why he deserved your vote: because he's a sort of wibbly public school Goldilocks.
THE AWKWARD STAGED RHETORICAL FLOURISHES
Of all the creaking staged bits of rhetoric, probably the most tiresome was Nick Clegg trying to call out Ed Miliband on whether he would "apologise for Labour's economic mess". No, wait, it wasn't that at all. It was when David Cameron, super-cringe, claimed to have a copy of the note Liam Byrne left in the Treasury when Labour departed on his actual lectern. No, wait. Tell a lie. Of course, it was Ed Miliband found himself falling back on the most famously effective payoff line in US Presidential debate history. Ronald Reagan's jibes to Jimmy Carter, "There you go again". Yes, Ed was effectively being a covers band of the founding father of neo-conservatism. Michael Foot would've been so proud.
The inevitable heckler arrived, inevitably, in the final quarter. "How would you like to clean up your own mother's piss?". Well, David Cameron liked it just fine, he supposed, because his heckler had made the tactical error of trying to make a serious point about soldiers' after-service care while wearing a furry white gilet and being a dick. As Victoria Prosser – whose Twitter profile describes her as a "mum, coach, artist, wellbeing guru!" – was removed by security, Cameron merely confirmed that he loved Our Boys very much, before noting that a woman in a furry gilet who called herself a "wellbeing guru" shouldn't expect the public to get behind her.
THE USE OF CANCELLING TRIDENT TO BANKROLL EVERYTHING
Trident is a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) equipped with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV). It costs around £2.4 billion a year to run, which is only 15 percent of the Defence budget. Replacing it in a few years time will cost another £20 billion. Yet every minnow party in history from the Lib Dems to the Greens still uses it as their financial black hole-plastering device whenever they want to get out of a spending commitment they've made about free woggles for llamas. This they do by valuing it a "£100 billion" and neglecting to measure that this figure is for the full 30 years. Nicola Sturgeon managed to take up the cudgels against it more than once.
THE INEVITABLE MASSIVE POLICY AREA OMISSION
It's just a good thing there isn't much global conflict going on, or else our sclerotic, insular island nation might've had to answer a question on international affairs. Given that the debate was already two hours of grey gruel, this was merciful. On the downside, it was an omission that meant that no one would split their sides hearing what Plaid's independent Wales would do if 300,000 fiercely-armed Russian troops lined up in the Baltic, nor hear Natalie Bennett suggest that we should let ISIS live in accordance with their traditional customs and stop trying to impose Western morality on them.
THE UNCOMFORTABLY PREDICTABLE MEDIA PUZZLEMENT
Afterwards, the snap polls simply told us that Cameron and Miliband were neck and neck – which probably says more about tribalism in politics than anything clear. Was there a winner? Not even "democracy" was a real winner here, but over the coming days any polls bounce will be reverse-correlated back to the debates. Pundits gazed at their feet and wondered whether it would all start to mean something soon enough. Is this election campaign actually ever going to generate momentum, or, given that we've spent the better part of a year fighting the phoney war, have we all made up our minds already? Are we now simply drifting towards the 7th of May in exactly the pattern of electoral gridlock the polls keeping suggesting? They're not always wrong, y'know.