I've just watched Sky News' leadership debate. It came alive during an encounter on 24 hour drinking but was otherwise a fairly tame affair. The candidates are now incredibly familar with their messages and both were able to repeat their familar campaign themes. David Davis emphasised his opposition to everything Tony Blair stood for, his belief in lower taxation and his determination to champion the victims of state failure. David Cameron spotlighted the extent of his parliamentary support and repeated his themes of change and hope.
Sky had arranged for a number of experts to put pointed questions to the candidates but none were given enough time to really put the contenders on the spot. An expert from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Robert Chote, pressed David Cameron, for example, on his 'sharing the proceeds of growth' soundbite. Mr Chote outlined a precise economic scenario and asked Mr Cameron to say how much of the economy's proceeds would go to tax cuts and how much to public spending. Mr Cameron declined to answer - falling back on restating his soundbite. He chose, instead, to go on the attack - accusing David Davis of failing to heed the message of the last election defeats. Mr Davis' tax promise amounted to double ham and eggs when the electorate had twice rejected a single portion of ham and eggs. Mr Davis said that Tories had to make the case for their deepest beliefs - including the case for economy-boosting tax relief. Speaking about a Sky/YouGov opinion poll that put both contenders behind Gordon Brown, Mr Davis said that what mattered was what the opinion polls said in four years - not now.
Seventeen undecided Tory voters were in the studio to watch the debate. Five became DD supporters. Six declared that they would back DC.
This was the last TV debate and one of Sky's experts, James Brown - formerly of Loaded magazine - noted that the reputation of the whole party had been helped by the civilised nature of the exchanges. Adam Boulton, Sky's Political Editor, certainly agrees. This is what he wrote for last Sunday's Telegraph:
"This is the first time any party has forced its candidates to run the gauntlet of hustings in front of activists live on television at the annual party conference. As a follow-up, no aspirant prime ministers in Britain have ever then gone on to confront each other in a series of live television debates, in the way of the two Davids.
Whoever wins, Cameron and Davis have already written themselves into the political history books. By the end of this campaign, the two men will have taken part in three full scale television debates, on BBC1, ITV1 (today at lunchtime), and Sky News (next Thursday), as well as sitting side by side on Radio 4's Woman's Hour and numerous breakfast TV sofas. The campaign will be remembered for these joint appearances. Traditional one-on-one interviews have had less impact, even those conducted by Jeremy Paxman.
The debates have been fresh: the first proper televised events in this country in which the contestants have complied with the requirements of the broadcasting professionals over such vital questions as format and timing. In 1994, the three Labour leadership candidates, Margaret Beckett, John Prescott and Tony Blair did allow television cameras into some of their joint appearances at party meetings. But Labour's sensitivity to media presentation was already well developed and the media were kept at arm's length. Not surprisingly, these dreary events did not attract the public's interest."
See The Telegraph's report on the Sky debate.