The Audition without a Role

Gordon Brown and David Cameron must be ruing the day they agreed to take part in the televised leaders’ debates which have catapulted Nick Clegg to X Factor prominence.

The sight of the three men standing behind their lecterns creates the impression that this is a three-way race. Electoral mathematics may make it unlikely that all three parties have an equal chance of winning, but, psychologically, the political landscape has been transformed.

Fears that the debates would be dull have been dashed. A country which is addicted to reality television was ready to embrace this prime- time High Noon.

The leaders were also ready to debate outside the House of Commons and before a television audience.

It is hard to imagine Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home or Anthony Eden responding well to a less than deferential questioner – and Harold Wilson might have set off the sprinkler system by lighting his pipe in a blaze of indignation.

Tonight’s final debate takes place in a Britain which has left the imperial age. None of the three men is even pretending to audition to run a superpower.

They appear to have calculated that voters are less interested in a vision for Britain’s role in the world than in a strategy for how to control the number of people from other parts of the world crossing our borders.

Last week’s debate was supposed to be about international affairs.

There was rightly engagement on Afghanistan, a tussle over Trident and a row about Europe. But the conversation spiralled into discussion about the Pope, details of what they were personally doing to combat climate change, hand-wringing about faith in the political system and counter-punches over pensions.

These are all worthy topics, but Russia and China were only mentioned a couple of times, there were fleeting references to North Korea and Iran and a complete avoidance of discussing Zimbabwe, Israel or Palestine.

Why is there this lack of ambition and imagination about Britain’s potential to be a force for reason and progress in parts of the world which have enormous influence on our own security?

Do they believe that thinking globally is a vote loser, or have the recession and Iraq left us feeling broke and bruised?

Men who want to lead the sixth largest economy should tell us how they want to shape the world. Otherwise, the swirling forces of international finance, global unrest and environmental decay will trample a country hungry for hope.

A Thursday column