Hippos of a certain age will remember a time when there were only two television channels, the boring one and the vulgar one, and a party political broadcast consisted of a grey man in black and white sitting at a desk.
After starting with: “I am here tonight to talk to you about…” – these cadavers would drone on for an expressionless 10 minutes to an unmoved camera and end with “God bless you all” and a forced smile. Mothers would look up from their knitting and comment that Mr Macmillan looked a bit ill. Fathers, claiming that there was something wrong with the contrast, would thump the side of the telly and go off to the pub.
Things improved in the 70`s when PPBs were made as if they were real programmes with film inserts, vox pops and graphics but it didn`t take long before things turned nasty. Negative campaigning raised its ugly head as advertising agencies employed by the parties spent the allocated 10 or 15 minutes slagging off the other lot, usually in the form of vicious personal attacks, rather than explaining their manifestos to us mere voters. That trend, like so many others, came from America and it is surprising that it has taken so long for Britain to stage televised stand up debates between party leaders. It has been 50 years since the youthful, handsome JFK took the presidency from a sweaty, devious Nixon on television. On that occasion it seems the camera did not lie.
Now, with the introduction of hundreds of living colour HD channels that are simultaneously boring and vulgar, the recent “Ask the Chancellors” TV special sounded like it was going to be a new Channel 4 game show. Screw up the economy and you will face a bush tucker trial – get the calculations for National Insurance contributions wrong and you will have to jump through a deficit shaped hole in a wall that is moving towards you. Year 13 in the Big Ben House, who will be evicted? You decide.
As a warm-up for the main event, this middleweight bout had more to do with Gok Wan than Harry Carpenter. On a lush purple set, our media-savvy contenders in well-cut suits handled the questions and camera angles with aplomb. The hours of rehearsal and coaching seem to have paid off as the election was not lost during the hour long spectacular. But, more importantly, it was not won either.
Darling, Cable and Osborne were on their best behaviour and the whole affair was polite and civilised with an unusual level of consensus and even agreement. None of the ya boo sucks politics displayed at the dispatch box here. All three realised that the level of national debt was colossal and all three agreed that cuts in services would be savage. When asked what services would be cut and when, the water became more than a little muddied. It seems that Darling and Osborne have nicked each others bikes and George shot himself in the foot over £11billion in “efficiencies”, a figure he had rubbished the previous week. He shot his other foot by banging on about the lurid “Death Tax” as if it were some sort of Star Wars threat. Darth Badger was able to swish him away with a deft flick of the light sabre.
Alistair, though, did not come out of the encounter well. He huffed and puffed but avoided offering any commitments or indication of where the suffering will start and it was left to cunning old Vince to make hay. Scrapping Trident to ease the pain, on paper, seems a good idea. A billion pound missile system aimed at some nutter on a tube train with underpants stuffed with Semtex is hardly a credible deterrent. But, like Badger and Weasel, the fox refused to be specific and could give no guarantee regarding health provision.
Vince clearly won the Channel 4 smack-down and we can look forward to Toad, Ratty and Mole entering the ring. Once the panel of celebrity judges, Rupert Murdoch, the Governor of the Bank of England and Cheryl Cole make their decision, the future of “The Chancellors” will be known. The possibility of a hung parliament after the election is a real possibility and we might find that Alistair is tasked with making the expected savage cuts to the health service. Vince, on the other hand, representing the party with the least chance of winning, could actually end up being Chancellor. After a poor performance though, George can only look forward to inheriting his father`s title and become Gideon, 18th Baronet of Ballintaylor.
Alternatively, they could record a charity single for comic relief or put in an appearance on Celebrity Master Chief. That`s showbiz.
There now follows a party political podcast…