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A Preview of the Third British Prime Minister Debate

Aired April 29, 2010 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, one last chance for British voters to watch their leaders square off, and we zero in on the third of Britain's unprecedented election debates.

Good evening, everyone, and welcome to our program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

Some had feared that the live TV debates would dumb down political discourse and force candidates into banal sound bites. Instead, they have electrified British politics, allowing voters to take the full measure of three men facing each other and allowing a dark horse candidate to turn the race upside down.

Labour leader and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Conservative David Cameron, and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg have one last chance half an hour from now to make their case directly to the British people, this time on economics. And that is Gordon Brown's strong suit, but he's trailing in the polls and, as seen here, apologizing again today for a verbal gaffe caught on an open mike.

It was yet another dramatic turn just a week before Election Day. We'll have our own lively debate right after CNN's Robin Oakley sets the stage from London.


ROBIN OAKLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Rule one in politics: Be nice to those you meet on the way up. You'll see them again on the way down.

Rule two: Switch off your mike before you start griping about those you've met. This was, quite possibly, the moment Gordon Brown buried his Labour Party's last chance at winning Britain's election.

GORDON BROWN, PRIME MINISTER OF BRITAIN: She should never have put me with that woman, a ridiculous, awful, bigoted woman that said she used to be Labour.

OAKLEY: Six apologies later, Mr. Brown, whose party has been limping in third place, was still counting the cost of his confrontation with pensioner Gillian Duffy.

This election, the most like an American presidential contest in Britain's history thanks to the new TV debates, is about anger, trust, and the desire for change. Voters are deeply angry with all politicians because of the lawmakers' expenses scandals which stained the last parliament, public money spent on swimming pool cleaning, resurfacing tennis courts, and ornamental houses for ducks, not to mention flipping second homes to do them up for sale at the taxpayers' expense. Who can people trust to purge the system?

Brown may have helped steer the international community through the economic crisis, but his Conservative opponent was able to depict him as a relic of times past.

DAVID CAMERON, CONSERVATIVE PARTY LEADER: He's an analog politician in a digital age.

OAKLEY: Conservative Leader Cameron seemed to be coasting serenely to Downing Street, but some saw too much Mr. Smooth salesmanship. The chauffeur carrying the briefcase in the car behind the bicycle didn't help, nor did costly dog sled shots to enhance Cameron's green credentials.

As poll ratings slipped, Brown was able to hit back.

BROWN: Mr. Speaker, to think he was the future once. Mr. Speaker...

OAKLEY: And now the TV debates. Enter stage left Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader. His party, which opposed the Iraq war, is untainted by any record in office, and suddenly it's a three-horse race. Maybe he can win, maybe he can't. But certainly he can stop either of the others having a majority.

(on-screen): Somehow instinctively, Britain's voters seem to have decided they don't trust either Labour or the Conservatives to clean up politics or to take full charge of taxation and the public services if they're allowed to govern alone. Instead of fearing a hung parliament, many are positively welcoming the idea.

NICK CLEGG, LIBERAL DEMOCRATS LEADER: You can't turn the clock back anymore. You can't put the genie back in the bottle. The old politics, where people are just told from on high that they can only have a choice of two, is over.

OAKLEY (voice-over): That's what he's hoping. And if horse three can stay in the race to the line, British politics could face its biggest shake-up for decades.

Robin Oakley, CNN, London.


AMANPOUR: And we're joined now from London by Sir Christopher Meyer, former British ambassador to the United States, and we welcome back to our program Simon Schama, a historian who's now at New York's Columbia University.


Gentlemen, thank you both very much for joining me. I want to go straight to you in London, because you're in the thick of things, Sir Christopher. Let's just put this gaffe to bed here. Is it going to make a huge difference, or is it one of those things that's happened that's embarrassing?

SIR CHRISTOPHER MEYER, FORMER BRITISH AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S.: We'll never know, Christiane, because we've got one poll tonight which has been taken after the gaffe and is going to appear in the Sun tabloid newspaper tomorrow, and this puts the Tories on 34, Labour on 27, and the Lib Dems on 28, not much change there.

Maybe -- as the gaffe sinks in -- we'll see change. But we're about to have the debate. The debate will overtake the gaffe. And we will never know how the gaffe has actually affected the numbers.

AMANPOUR: Well, I was going to ask you, actually -- and I'm going to turn to Simon, then. Sir Christopher set up the premise that the debate now is going to take over, and this is the final debate. What do the leaders of those parties have to do tonight?

SIMON SCHAMA, HISTORIAN: Well, what Gordon Brown has been struggling to do is sort of change the whole temper of the campaign from a personality contest into substantive policy issues. And he could claim, after all, to have saved the recession in Britain from becoming something even worse, a depression.

David Cameron, the Conservative leader, was always going to come after him and say, "Well, fine, you took us back from the cliff, but you were the guy who was driving the bus when we went right up to the edge."

The trouble with the gaffe, the trouble with the gaffe is really that it becomes something of a question about what politicians are like. Robin's introduction to the program, Christiane, was saying there is some sort of mood about everybody feeling, when they look at any politician, they must go and have a long, cold shower afterwards, and a terrible sort of gap between Gordon Brown's profession and his limo rage is -- is going to be a problem if he wants to bring everything back to substantial economic policy.

AMANPOUR: Let me...

SCHAMA: Nick Clegg can just feast off the two having a go at each other, really, and he must. Oddly enough, the expectations are on him to come out of a slight sort of plateau period for the Liberal Democrats.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask you, Simon. Look, you know, a lot of commentators were sneering about these debates, saying that, oh, it's just going to be, I don't know, Americanization of our politics or it's just going to be fluff. Hasn't the gaffe thing kind of proved them right? Hasn't this sort of personality thing taken over from substance?

SCHAMA: No, I don't think so. You know, there was also an opinion poll this morning saying -- asking people how big a deal they thought that the gaffe would be in terms of the election, and what a surprise. Half of them said, oh, it's quite a big deal, and the other half said, in proverbially fabulous British language, "I don't give a toss, mate," is what they said.


SCHAMA: So I think...

MEYER: Hey, what an accent.

SCHAMA: ... there were some people, Christiane -- you and me -- who always thought the debates were going to make a huge difference. And I -- Christopher's right. I think actually once the -- the debate itself in half an hour will be sufficiently intense and dramatic for people to be concentrating very hard on it.

How many watch is an issue. The first debate drew 4 million people, enormous number. The second only drew about half as many. I have a suspicion that the audience -- I don't know why -- will be somewhere in between tonight, really, and that's a factor.

AMANPOUR: All right. Well, that's interesting, because all the commentary around the debates, Christopher, has been that it's really galvanized the population and the voters in England. Do you expect a lot of people to tune in? I know that's trying to predict -- predict and look through a crystal ball, but more -- more specifically, people say they want change, but it doesn't really -- how? What? Change to what?

MEYER: Well, this is the problem, because the politicians -- all three of our politicians -- are talking the talk of change. And then, of course, each of them define it in a different way. This is a bit like American politics in 2008, when I think at one time, when both your primaries were running, that every single candidate was espousing change.

There is a structural problem in the change argument for Gordon Brown and, to a lesser extent, for David Cameron. Gordon Brown finds himself in a trap if he says, "I am going to talk the new politics," which he says from time to time, because he's been in power for 13 years. So if he is the agent of change, what he wants to change, logically, by definition, is everything that he's been doing for the past decade and more.

David Cameron's problem is that he is newer on the scene and younger on the scene than previous Tory incumbents, but he's been around for quite a long time, too.

So in comes Nick Clegg, who gets this wonderful, golden platform of a debate, which otherwise would have rendered him pretty obscure during the general election, and he can say, with all the freshness of novelty, I am Mr. Change.


The interesting thing tonight will be if in the third debate he's going to look as new as he looked in the first debate. Is he going to be as novel? And I think this is going to be a fascinating contest. I don't think it's debased British politics at all. I mean, after all, elections are personalities, they're politics, and they are policy, and they're all in a great big mix.


SCHAMA: And Christopher is absolutely right. They were that way with Gladstone and Disraeli. And, you know, they were that way with Mr. Balfour and Lloyd George. So, I mean -- and no one could argue -- what is wonderful about this is that the kind of tweed-wrapped snooziness of British politics are sort of, you know, just absolutely shot into the air and showed the possibility of re-oxygenating tired, old, failed democratic habits -- America, are we listening? -- can happen in the old world.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me -- let me ask you...

MEYER: Well -- well -- well, yes, sorry, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: Christopher, carry on, but just let me ask you, so where does that put Nick Clegg? Is he still -- is there still Clegg-mania? Is he still the kingmaker? What are people thinking?

MEYER: Well, whether or not he's going to be the kingmaker, we're going to have to wait for the numbers on the morning of May the 7th. I think Simon is quite right to talk about re-oxygenation. The question is, is he starting to de-oxygenate a little bit right now?

And there are two big structural problems for him. Because he is new, he's come under an intense scrutiny both by people and by the media. And if you look at some of the Clegg policies, Clegg flagship policies, they are not ones associated with a great deal of popularity in the United Kingdom.

He wants to take Britain into the euro, for example. He wants -- we think -- to get rid of the nuclear deterrent. He has some actually swinging tax proposals. People are starting to look at this stuff, and they're not quite sure this is what they want.

One other point, too, is people are scared about the possibility of a hung parliament. And the figures for that are rising all the time.

AMANPOUR: All right. We're going to talk about a hung parliament after a break, but quickly, before we go to a break, Christopher, you were a spokesman for the last Tory prime minister, John Major.

MEYER: Oh, yes.

AMANPOUR: You presumably have a bit of an interest. And I guess my question is, what happened to David Cameron's surge and the inevitability of him being the next prime minister?

MEYER: Well, it was never -- it was never an inevitability. I mean, there were moments last year in particular when he had big, double-digit leads over Labour, but you knew -- you know, a week is a long time in politics, and anything could change, and some of the wind has gone out of the sail since the beginning of this year.

The problem he had is -- certainly in the first -- in the first debate, less so in the second debate -- was he looked so stiff and formal that it was -- it was very hard for him to convey that he was a fresh, cool breeze blowing.

AMANPOUR: OK. And we'll come back and we'll talk more about this concept of change and also the hung parliament and what this election might mean for Britain's relations with the U.S. and the rest of the world. More with our guests after a short break.




BROWN: This may have the feel of a TV popularity contest, but in truth, this is an election about Britain's future, a fight for your future and for your jobs. If it's all about style and P.R., count me out. If it's about the big decisions, if it's about judgment, it's about delivering a better future for this country, I'm your man.

CAMERON: It's clear from last week's debate that the country wants change. But the question is, what sort of change and who's best placed to lead that change? If you vote Conservative, you will get a new team running the country from May the 7th, and you won't be stuck with what you've got now.

CLEGG: I am so proud of the values that have made our country so great -- democracy, human rights, the rule of law -- but the sad truth is that, in recent years, our governments under the old parties have let those values down.


AMANPOUR: And those were clips from last week's debate, the second debate, the party leaders squaring off in an unprecedented series of TV debates.

And for more on what to expect in tonight's final debate, we rejoin our guests, Sir Christopher Meyer and Professor Simon Schama.

Let me ask you, Professor Schama, because I read something extraordinary, and that is that even if Labour come in third in popular vote, there is a possibility that they could win the most seats, not a majority necessarily, but the most seats, according to what I've been reading. How does that work?

SCHAMA: Very unlikely. If I really told you how the machinery of politics work, Christiane, everyone would switch off and do something tragic, like going to watch Bill O'Reilly or reruns of "Golden Girls." You don't want to hear that. Just take it from me that it's very unlikely to happen.

What is possible is that Labour could come in third and, well, they could still form a government with Liberal Democratic support, if the Lib Dems wanted to do that. And that would be -- Nick Clegg originally said under no circumstance would he keep Gordon Brown in Downing Street if the Labour Party is third in terms of the popular vote, but then he's moved back a bit and kept all his options open.

It's complicated -- you can pull out from history examples -- the Tories have been saying that, woah, there's a hung parliament, and no one has an absolute working majority. My hunch is, for what it's worth, I think the Tories are going to have a very small working majority.

But if it doesn't happen, though, Conservatives have been saying, oh, there will be no -- there will be a run on sterling, it's the end of the British economy as we know it. You can pull out evidence from fairly recent history either way.

In 1974, there was a hung parliament, but there was already a terrible industrial crisis. Britain was on the three-day week. There had to be two elections that year. The party that did not get most seats -- the Labour Party -- Harold Wilson did form a government.

But in 1977-'78, in fact, while not technically a hung -- a hung parliament, there was a minority government again with Liberal Democratic help, alliance between -- and that actually made the economy better. Inflation went down. Sterling stabilized.

So I'm not sure many of the British people -- whether they, you know, are reading history intensely or not -- buy the view that the world is going to come to an end if we have to have some form of coalition government in Britain.

AMANPOUR: All right. Well, Christopher, let me turn to you. Obviously, the economy is the focus of tonight's debate, and yet many people want to talk about election reform precisely because of the kind of anomalies that Simon has been talking about.

Do you think that that's even on the cards? Let's say David Cameron, as Simon suggested, comes out ahead. Would he discuss election reform or not? Which is what Nick Clegg wants.

MEYER: Well, it all depends on the terms of the coalition, informal or formal, if that is what it came to. I mean, I agree with Simon. I am a betting man, and I bet on a small overall majority to the Conservatives.


But if that does not happen and if it is the case that the Conservatives have to get into a negotiation with the Liberal Democrats, what Clegg says is an absolute precondition for a coalition that there should be electoral reform.

The question then arises, what kind of electoral reform? And there was a thousand different ways in which you can play around with the system in Britain before you reach an agreement. There is no one template.

I think the Conservatives would be very keen on some -- what is known in America as redistricting so that the constituencies were more in line with the numbers of voters who voted in each constituency. And I think actually the Lib Dems would be in favor of that, as well, because they suffer from getting however millions of votes and very few seats in the House of Commons.

So you can go from redistricting at one end of the spectrum to a serious proportional representation of such mathematical complexity that most normal human beings can't work out what the hell it is.

AMANPOUR: All right...

SCHAMA: For God's sake, Christopher, they do it in Denmark and Holland, and it's perfectly fine.

MEYER: No, I'm not saying -- no, no, no, no...

SCHAMA: Most British people wouldn't be able to work out what it is right now, but the theory...

MEYER: Simon, Simon, that's not my point. That's not my point. My point is not that you -- proportional representation is too difficult for normal people, but you can go into very complex systems where it does become quite hard to work out what the heck you're voting for. You can have a simple change; that is possible, and I agree with that.

AMANPOUR: Let me turn to the whole nature of Britain's role in the world. A distinguished commentator said the curtain is about to come down on 400 years of Britain as a great world power and that its role in the world is diminishing. What do you see? Is this election going to make any difference? Or is that just inevitable?

MEYER: Are you asking me?

AMANPOUR: Well, first Simon and then, you, Christopher.

SCHAMA: Oh, well, we've been hearing this -- oh, you know, since the Treaty of Paris in 1783. And, yes, of course it's right. You know, Britannia doesn't rule the waves, doesn't think it wants to rule the waves anymore.

But Dean Acheson lost an empire, can't find a role, you know, saying Britain's great sort of place in the world is over is so not news. The issue -- but the issue about -- is whether or not this election will make a difference to the kind of national energies and the possibility of doing something serious in Afghanistan, for example.


SCHAMA: You know, it's likely -- it's likely to put a little lead in the British pencil, I think.

AMANPOUR: And, Christopher, in the United States, in Washington right now, there seems to be a less anglophile administration, at least in the Bush administration, when you were ambassador over here. Is the relationship between Britain and the United States going to change at all?

MEYER: Well, I don't think we should get terribly excited about the ups and downs of British-American relations. Actually, if you look at them, since 1945, relatively recent period, they've had great peaks and great troughs. And it is actually a relationship more characterized by volatility than by its stability.

Now, if Nick Clegg in a coalition government, let us say, were to become the foreign secretary and be the overlord of British foreign policy and could do what he would like to do, according to his prospectus, then I think you would see a distinct tilt away from the United States and towards the European Union. I don't actually think that is going to happen.

But if you take what he says literally, that seems to be the direction in which he would like to move.

AMANPOUR: OK, very quickly, we've got one minute, so I want 30 seconds each. Simon Schama, do you think Gordon Brown will be punished for Labour's support of the Iraq war?

SCHAMA: Oh, 30 seconds, no, it's memory problem, no. Tony Blair, if he'd stood for re-election, would have been. No, that's not going to be a factor.

AMANPOUR: OK. And, Christopher, if people say that they're exhausted and they want change, do they trust -- have they seen enough from, let's say, David Cameron to put that trust in somebody new and untested at this time?

MEYER: I think there's just about enough conviction in the British electorate to give the baton to David Cameron and to give him it by a slight majority.

AMANPOUR: Well, both of you gentlemen, thank you very much, indeed. And the focus of today's British election debate is the economy. It's not a dry topic, but one that affects people's lives, of course. For a remarkably vivid look at just how, see a series of photos, such as this one, of a Welsh farmer feeding his sheep and other farms all over the world at our Web site,

And coming up, the moment of truth, the debate itself.



AMANPOUR: The final debate between the three candidates vying to be prime minister of Britain is coming up right now. And for that, we're handing over to my colleague, Becky Anderson, in London with special coverage and analysis of what has captivated the imagination of voters all over Britain and beyond.

Becky, over to you now.