Page last updated at 14:49 GMT, Wednesday, 14 April 2010 15:49 UK

How are the leaders preparing for the election debates?

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

Like reality TV contestants getting ready for a live final, the leaders of Britain's three main political parties are being put through their paces by some of the best experts in the business.

Barack Obama and John McCain
US presidential election debates draw enormous TV audiences

Labour and the Conservatives have both hired former aides to US President Barack Obama to help them prepare for the prime ministerial debates that get under way on Thursday evening.

The Conservatives have signed up a Washington-based political consultancy, Squier, Knapp, Dunn Communications, which also counts New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg among its clients.

Senior partners Anita Dunn, who advised Barack Obama before his presidential campaign and was communications director at the White House until last year, and Bill Knapp, a former Obama and Clinton adviser, have been coaching Conservative leader David Cameron in how to get the better of his opponents for the past month.

Gordon Brown has also been undergoing intensive preparation, aided by Obama's former polling chief Joel Benenson, who was on the team that helped the US president prepare for his 2008 campaign debates, and David Axelrod, Obama's chief campaign consultant.


The Labour leader prides himself on being a master of policy detail - and will be hoping to make Mr Cameron appear inexperienced and shallow by comparison, but the Tory leader is by far the more relaxed of the two in front of the cameras and will no doubt be relishing the opportunity to take on Mr Brown on what he might see as home turf.

For Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg it will be an unparalleled opportunity to appear on an equal footing with the big two party leaders.

Stands for the party leaders at the set

Televised presidential debates have been an established feature of the political process in the US for decades - but how much can Britain's party leaders really learn from them?

The emphasis is very much making the candidates appear presidential.

Observers say the key to Obama's success lay in his ability to radiate a calm, commanding presence.

"So much of the time I think it's the composure, the demeanour that counts in American politics," says CBS journalist Bob Scheiffer, who moderated the 2008 debates.

"I am absolutely convinced that Obama won not on substance, but on composure."

Obama did "not take a single note - he just kept looking McCain directly in the eye", Mr Scheiffer told BBC Radio 4's Today programme, while "McCain would squirm around when Obama was speaking, he'd be hastily taking notes and things like that".


Joel Benenson gave an insight into the sort of advice he might be giving to Mr Brown when he told Newsweek magazine that he repeatedly stressed two words to Mr Obama during three days of intensive preparation for his first TV debate: "Command and control."

Obama is said to have prepared for the debate as if studying for an exam, spending hours pouring over policy details and endlessly rehearsing attack and counterattack lines with aides on a mocked-up TV set.

Mr Brown is said to be taking a similarly thorough approach and his team are taking heart from the fact that Obama's Republican opponent, John McCain, was initially seen as the more impressive TV debater, having got the better of Obama in one early encounter.

Squier, Knapp, Dunn Communications webstie
Anita Dunn's company helped Obama to the presidency

Mr Brown has been put through his paces by Tony Blair's former press secretary Alistair Campbell, who played the role of Mr Cameron during rehearsals, and Theo Bertram, an ex-adviser at No 10, who acted as Mr Clegg.

One of the big differences between the US and Britain is that the main party leaders already go head-to-head on live TV nearly every week.

But there is a world of difference between the knockabout atmosphere of prime minister's questions, where the debate often descends into taunts and name calling, and the more sterile, unforgiving glare of the TV studio.

There is also the question of the format for the 90-minute debates, which will see the leaders open with a one-minute statement, then take questions from the audience, studio and public via e-mail.

They will have a minute to answer the question, a minute to react, and four minutes of free debate.

"There is quite a bit to learn because of the format being so different," said an aide to David Cameron, who has the central podium in Thursday's debate.

Mr Brown will be on the right for the three events, owing to his restricted vision, while Mr Clegg stands on the left this time.


In addition to Anita Dunn, Mr Cameron will also be receiving advice from his inner circle including ex ad man Steve Hilton, former News of the World editor Andy Coulson and shadow education secretary Michael Gove, who often plays the part of Gordon Brown when they are preparing for prime minister's questions.

Damien Green, the shadow immigration minister, has been playing Mr Brown in preparation for the televised debate, with shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt as Mr Clegg.

We want Nick to come across as Nick
Lib Dem aide

Mr Clegg has been rehearsing for the debates on television sets and other locations, with the Lib Dems' home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne and children's spokesman David Laws playing the Labour and Conservative leaders respectively.

"We want to make sure Nick is comfortable with the format, which is slightly weird," says one of his prep team.

Unlike the two larger parties, the Lib Dems have not retained the services of an expensive US-based political consultancy to coach their man, although they stress they have "been speaking to people with experience of televised debates".

An aide insists Mr Clegg will not arrive at the studio clutching a bundle of pre-prepared one-liners, saying his advisers want him to "be himself" and to "avoid becoming too self-obsessed and wrapped up in an American-style approach".

Mr Clegg's team say their main aim is to get Mr Clegg's personality across to voters - many of whom, they concede, will not have seen him in action before or even know who he is.

"We want Nick to come across as Nick," says an aide.

With three debates, on ITV, Sky and the BBC, scheduled across the final three weeks of the campaign, the three leaders may find traditional election campaigning will have to take a back seat.

All three are expected to keep public appearances to a minimum in day before each debate, as they concentrate on final preparations and ensure that they are feeling as fresh as possible when they stride on to the stage.

"You cannot be tired for the debates. A full campaigning day beforehand would be exhausting," says a Cameron aide.

Like students swotting for a final exam, they may find the best preparation of all is a good night's sleep.

We asked what your advice to the three leaders would be, ahead of the TV debates. Here is a selection of your comments.

My advice to the party leaders would be to stop trying to convince us of anything other than your genuine integrity and selfless wish to bring this country up off its knees. The hiring of these presentation experts to gain one over the opponents reeks of more spin to come and does not bode well for the advancement of wise, long-term government strategies in the making.

Also please do not try to convince us that you are presidential candidates, we want to see cabinet government, not one self-obsessed leader with a charisma by-pass and plainly short of good judgement, trying desperately to improve things which don't need attention and otherwise ruling over everything in sight.
Idiot from the West, Oxford

My advice: tell me the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I'm fed up of spin, spin on spin, and wonky interpretations of statistics. I want to hear what you are going to do to "fix Britain". I want to hear what vision you have for Britain. I want to know how we can become a nation that creates/produces wealth - not one that shops till it drops.
Paul McGrath, Egham, Surrey

My advice for them would be to not lower themselves to the name calling and taunting we are so used to seeing. A leader with a bit of integrity would be nice. But they all think that they are right 100% of the time, so fat chance.
Daisy Chain, Leeds, UK

Show yourself - not who your aides suggest. Spend time to explain your beliefs. Don't waste my time dissing the other guys, I can make up my own mind about him. I want to vote for you (rather than not vote for them).
Steve Edwards, Hampton

Insist that the leaders stick to their own policies, suggestions, thoughts etc.. rather than turn this into a backbiting, pathetic shambles: "His party said this, and so the world is going to end if you elect them.." "his party in the past did this that and the other, cos its really relevant to what they may (or may not) do if elected" Lets get down to the essential nitty gritty - I want to see who can hold their own under intense scrutiny, rather than who is the most elouant and media savvy.
Colin, Leeds, UK

Thankfully, Nick Clegg is going for the honest WYSISWYG approach, whilst the other two misguidedly go for the transparent American gloss of presentation over substance. I don't think the British voting public is so gullible.
Phil Sears, Dorking UK

"Thankfully, Nick Clegg is going for the honest WYSISWYG approach, "

You mean promising a referendum on the EU constitution and then breaking that promise?

Be humble. You don't know everything, you don't have all the answers. Give what you have got, show your character and tell the truth. i want a government that can learn to work together with all parties for the good of the country, not a self obsessed know-it-all attempt and governance.
Jon Mabbutt, London

Don't waste your time and come down the Pub with me instead. No one believes the false promises these people make. After the Tories win the election, nothing will change, they'll be a few more strikes and even more unemployment, crime will continue to rise and the UK will become further entwined into the corrupt and bureaucratic nonsense called the EU and of cause immigration will continue as will political correctness.

What the country needs is for the BNP, Greens, Socialist Labour, UKIP etc to win seats, then maybe the so called big three will start to listen to the people and our concerns.
Bob Tobb,

Be straight in answering the questions. Be 'conviction politicians', even if you know the electorate might not agree with your view. Demonstrate leadership through your answers, so the country can see your vision for the UK -which even from Australia I can see certainly needs one!

Conor O'Malley, Melbourne, Australia

It is a sad day in British politics that yet again we follow the American way of life. What about the other Parties? Is it fair for them? In a nation & society that it under the spell of celebrity & media it'll come down to who is savvy enough in front of the camera. It'll be a point scoring exercise against each other instead of solid policy ideas. Its a joke, and a sad day for true democracy.
Scott Avery, Expat, Stockholm

Show some respect for each other, and the more detail you come out with in policies the better. Unfortunately this risks losing fickle British viewers, so to avoid this you need to make sure what you're saying is interesting, not just a reel of numbers, to keep it concise.

Dont suck up to the British public either, its just annoying. Be honest, if thats even possible. Look at the wider picture and how policies / ideas will interlink. Getting hung up on some minor issue like Gordon Brown's handwriting is really not a great political issue for the general elections.
Ben Fowler, Maidstone, Kent

90 minutes for a few soundbites equally distributed between the three parties may sereve the public well (those of us with limited political attention spans) and yet I find the idea rather distasteful. Prime Ministers are chosen by their party, not the public. Perhaps these debates should be between randomly selected members of each party's prospective cabinet to reflect the team game they're supposed to be entertaining in Downing Street.
Matthew Hayden, Taunton England

prove the people why you want to govern the uk...focus on the entire policy of your government regarding care, welfare, health, tax, immigration, economy, family....and not to woffle or just argue for nothing. people are desperate to get rid of all those hypocrasis....
yehang, aldershot

Come on Dave - do us proud. I cannot tolerate another 4 or 5 years of Labour lies and tax rises...although I'm sure they'll try their little "sweetener" con in the budget in 2 weeks.
Alan Lloyd, South Wales

I was looking forward to these debates. Having now seen the election slogans, I don't see the point. The three main parties are pretty much identical. Labour is promising fairness, Conservatives change (or is it the other way around? Who cares, its just as meaningless either way), and lib dems fairness AND change.

Seriously. If that's the best they can come up with for their main slogans, what's the point in listening to anything else they've got to say? Their slogans are all vague to the point of nonsense. "Change"? For the better, for the worse? Are they going to change water into wine? Depression to boom? What? "Fairness"? In who's opinion? Who's definition of 'Fairness' are we using here?

So, SO pointless. I think I'm actually going to vote Green. It might ruin the country but at least its clear what they actually stand for.

Some predictions:

Most used phrase: 'I am (or we are) clear that...'

Least used phrases: a tie between 'you're absolutely right' and 'I'm sorry, it was my/our fault'

Shortest answer: no less than 10 words. Yes or No is too clear. No matter how 'clear' they claim to be about anything.

Plus ca change... or should that be plus ca l'equite...?

jez lawrence, leeds uk

Gordon Brown will be under intense scrutiny, to do well. Cameron will have the easiest ride. But I do think Nick Clegg will be a Dark Horse. He appeals to the youth, me being one of them. He isn't that bothered about the financial situation or foreign relations, but what he is concerned about is the future. With Vince Cable on his side as well, we could see a new Clement Attlee at the helm. I am a Labour supporter, but have become annoyed with the Blair regime, I am a socalist and it shouldn't be Gordon Brown to blame for the Conservative Britian we still have nowadays. Don't write Nick Clegg off until you've heard what he has to say.
Alex Furby, Southend On Sea

The irony here is the that having these TV debates shows exactly what this country has degraded into; a 'Hello' magazine state. People are more interested in what Katie Price is wearing than improving the future of this decaying world for future generations. Parties used to have passion and conviction; peopel would go into politics because they believed passionately in something and wanted to change things. Now being an MP is "just another job".
Tristan, Sheffield

I would Like to see a British debate, in a traditional British sence, not a format which allows the egotistical and charismatic to take the upper hand. In the UK we should be voting on our personal representative for our constituency, the person who best represents ones views and opinions on the issues which matter. Rather than the party with the leader who is the most agreeable or the leader who can obliterate his opponent. Yes I agree that the leader should have a presence and a personality, but this should not form the basis of our vote, for this is not the way in which our voting system works.
Matt Adams, Harrogate, UK

My advice to Brown is to carry on as you have done for the last 3 years. Try not to answer any question - it may incriminate you.

If you really have to answer then as usual - LIE. Please reel off every statistic you can - we all enjoy that. Keep smiling (a la YouTube) all the way through - the audience will need a good laugh to get through 90 minutes. If all else fails - throw your papers on the floor and stamp your feet, the electorate will enjoy an insight into your managerial skills.
John Bracewell, Bristol, England

Don't bother
Bob Johnson, Telford

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