30 Mar 2010

After Ask the Chancellors – Operation Spin Room

On Ask the Chancellors, I need to apologise for one thing. We did not organise sufficiently quickly a camera to record for you the one-off electoral treat that was Britain’s first ever “Spin Room”.

At about 9.05pm yesterday, the studio cafe set aside for three or four dozen political hacks, economics editors, sketch writers, bloggers and some of the chancellors’ teams was quite literally invaded by a phalanx of shiny sharp-suited Conservatives.

I spotted George Osborne’s chief of staff grinning. His chief spokesman made his way over to his Labour counterpart, who seemed bewildered by this whirlwind. And then William Hague too – who on earth let him in? They were smiling, and they came armed with printed out press releases exposing a “dazed” Darling’s gaffe on the death tax.

Phase three of Operation Spin Room was to fan out across the room and attempt Jedi mind control on bemused hacks as they attempted to file their reports. “George was superb, wasn’t he? We’re really happy.. The big political story is clearly Darling’s gaffe on the death tax,” said one of the grinning Torybots whilst offering me the press release and a chat with Mr Hague.

It was a sight to behold. George Osborne’s occasional jaunts to visit the US Republicans have clearly paid off. The idea of a Spin Room was imported by us after seeing it in a Sarah Smith report on the US Presidential debates.

It’s worth saying that Labour had also brought along Douglas Alexander, and the Labour spinmeisters were attempting to disabuse me of my live assertion that “some of the Tory tax change did add up” even before the debate started. And then I spotted Chris Huhne for the LibDems.

Did it make a difference? Well, I think it goes to show that in this kind of debate, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Partisan observers became more so. The headlines in the papers were all different, which I take as a good sign. The FT’s splash was “Banks targeted in TV clash”. The Guardian front-page – “And they’re off” – referred mostly to the section on the Conservative National Insurance plans. The Labour-supporting Mirror headlines “Bye Bye George: Osborne crushed”.

And that is the point. I’ve got no idea who the “winner” is. Only you, the voter, do. My personal view was that for the first 20 minutes Darling was uncharacteristically combative and passionate, and he “went for” Osborne. The shadow chancellor was in the danger zone, but he held his ground and fought back, and managed to land that blow over the death tax.

Vince Cable was popular and had the best quips, but continually deflected direct questions to the other two, meaning that on our stopwatches, contrary to popular perception, the LibDem had less time speaking than the main two parties.

The reason why Cable did not get as scrutinised as Osborne or Darling is that both Osborne and Darling chose not to attack Cable, even when he attacked them. It was a dynamic of the debate picked up upon by Matthew Engel in the FT. Ask the Chancellors was the future of our hung parliament negotiations in microcosm.

There was tremendous interest in this. A 2.1 million audience in this time slot, up against Eastenders, is incredible, as is the fact that the audience grew during the course of the programme. On Twitter, it was the number one topic of discussion in the UK for an hour, and it reached the number three topic for discussion in the world too, much to the bemusement of its US-centric membership.

This was deep economics reaching parts you would not normally expect it to. Britain could have done with a debate like this in 2005, before the disastrous consensus on light touch regulation.

(* I should declare an interest, I was Editorial Consultant to Ask the Chancellors)