Lib Dem leader turned to bodyguard for feedback after wrongly predicting his performance had not gone well.
They were 90 minutes that pundits say may have changed the face of British politics – yet there was one man who thought Nick Clegg had made a real hash of the first TV debate. Not a Tory, or anyone Labour either.
It seems the man himself was underwhelmed by the performance and sought cheap cigarettes and the reassurance of a special branch bodyguard moments after the broadcast. He didn’t get it. When Clegg asked for feedback on how he’d done, the officer deadpanned: “Alright, sir.”
It was only later the magnitude of his performance became clear. “Nick thought he fluffed the first half of the debate,” an adviser said. “It wasn’t until he spoke to [his wife] Miriam, and then the calls started coming through on our BlackBerrys with the results of the instant polls, that he realised quite how well he had done. He was shocked.”
Clegg’s aides accept that the second of the three televised debates, which will be hosted by Sky in Bristol on Thursday, presents a very different challenge. His principal aim will be to consolidate his poll boost, but he is aware that it might be hard to meet expectations.
The Lib Dems kickstarted their preparation for the three debates in January with a meeting in Clegg’s parliamentary office. Conscious that an election could be called as soon as March, six advisers met to “brainstorm” how they could exploit a televised clash with David Cameron and Gordon Brown.
“We realised this was going to be a televised event like no other,” said a strategist. “We had an audience in the studio of about 200 people, and then we had up to 10 million people watching at home. We pretty soon made the decision that what mattered most was television viewers.”
The advisers decided that rather than focusing on winning arguments, Clegg should convey something more personable. “It was about someone turning the telly off after watching the debate and thinking, ‘He’s alright’ or ‘He’s a decent bloke’. It was never about winning a logical argument with numbers or statistics. That’s not what television is about.”
On the basis that Clegg should “speak to” people watching television, it was suggested he should look directly into the camera. During the debate, this proved a crucial difference between Clegg and his rivals, who looked out into the studio audience and, according to analysts, appeared less engaged.
“We were worried that looking straight at the camera might look creepy,” the strategist said. They hastily mocked up a podium, made Clegg say a few words into the camera, and played back the footage.
No experts with experience of the US presidential election debates were flown in to assist with preparation, although Clegg’s aides did speak to senior Democrats over the phone.
Brown’s team were advised by Michael Sheehan, who helped prepare Barack Obama in advance of his debates with John McCain. Cameron also hired the support of a veteran from the Obama campaign, the former White House communications director Anita Dunn.
Liberal Democrats complain that Brown’s position as prime minister bestows on him a “natural advantage” in Thursday’s clash, because the debate’s focus on foreign policy will allow him to draw on classified foreign policy briefings to which his rivals are not privy. The prime minister is also in a position to reference his summit meetings with world leaders and telephone calls with the White House.
Unlike the Conservative and Labour camps, which were trying to play down their prospects before the last debate, Lib Dem strategists say they are confident about Clegg’s chances on Thursday. They argue that if Cameron or Brown attacks Clegg, it will cement his claim to be a credible threat to the Westminster establishment. “It’s simple,” said the strategist. “The more they focus on us, the more airtime we get.”
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