The fine line between politics and show business was blurred a little further last week when Channel 4 presented a live debate involving the three would-be chancellors.
Current incumbent Alistair Darling was pitched against Vince Cable, Liberal Democrat shadow chancellor, and Conservative shadow chancellor George Osborne.
The debate was set against a studio backdrop resembling a poor man’s Weakest Link – all that was missing was Anne Robinson and the chance to vote off the least favourite panellist.
Things kicked off with each candidate being given one minute to describe how they would fix the economy.
Osborne stuck cautiously to his time slot, rehashing his familiar view on how the UK needs to deal with its debt by cutting unnecessary expenditure while not raising taxes.
Cable used his somewhat extended minute to point out that banks should start lending again and an increase in jobs is necessary to kick-start the economy.
He also managed to get in the first of many reminders that it was he who predicted the economic downturn. Yes Vince, we get the message.
Darling talked of securing the recovery, cutting the deficit and increasing taxes while protecting frontline services – a bland but worthy contribution.
The debate mainly centred around how the country’s huge deficit can be cut. In fact, too much time and attention was given to arguing over this point, with Darling and Osborne presenting their views and Cable leaping in to take sides when it suited him.
The only genuine revelation was that public spending cuts will be deeper than those introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
Presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy did well as a moderator but failed to grill the trio sufficiently, thereby missing an opportunity to generate a more heated debate. He even started some of his questions by saying “just for the sake of clarity”, implying that he didn’t want to upset the politicians.
As a result, viewers learnt little more than they could have gleaned from watching a few days’ worth of Parliament TV.
Ask The Chancellors was pitched as a UK version of the US presidential debates but this is not necessarily a good thing.
The role of the chancellor is different from that of Prime Minister or president and anyway, forcing people to perform on live TV does not always show them in the best light.
In the US they treat their politicians like film stars – this is the country that made Arnold Schwarzenegger governor of California, after all. But was it necessary to subject our would-be chancellors to this ordeal?
Darling is unlikely to be top of anyone’s dinner party list while Osborne doesn’t come across as the most dominant of politicians, but that doesn’t mean either should not be chancellor.
Programmes such as this run the risk of devaluing politics, a fact highlighted by the media coverage the politicians received the following day when psychologists analysed everything from their hand gestures to how many times they tilted their heads. Of course, their tie choices were also of great interest.
Public opinion is important but whether this should be forged based on a staged production aimed more at exploiting personalities than exposing policies is indeed debatable.
Review by natalie martin