CleggLeg – Politician Meets Banter and Triumphs

ClegglegIn recent years panel shows and stand-up comics have turned banter into an art form.  It even has its own dedicated broadcaster – Dave.  The trouble is, it looks easy, but good banter amongst a panel of quick wits is difficult to pull off, especially on live TV.  For that reason, most politicians usually adopt the first rule of PR self-preservation – I am a serious person and therefore can not and should not engage in public banter.  Nick Clegg threw that theory out the window with a triumphant appearance on The Last Leg yesterday.

The show is worth a watch on 4OD if you missed it.  For me The Last Leg has always been the programme after Gogglebox that I never had the stamina to watch.  It’s a live knock-about news review with a bit of slapstick and guests – more natural than Russell Howard and much lighter than Have I Got News for You.  The heart-beat of the show is banter between the hosts and guests.  With the Deputy PM on as special guest last night I prepared myself to hide behind the sofa.

But Clegg did well.  There were a few difficult moments, but it flowed. Most importantly he was just about able to raise the banterometer high enough to engage in the show at its level, without lifting it to a level that would have been ridiculous.  It was also important that he didn’t appear to be trying too hard, or to have prepared himself with a plan of attack.  As such, from nowhere came (dare I say it) a bit of natural charm and the quick wit that most senior politicians have, but they hide so convincingly for fear of an adverse headline.  The line about not voting being equivalent to letting someone else order for you at Nandos may not make it into the quotations dictionary, but it was bang on the money in this context.  And it persuaded Alex Brooker to vote which was the whole point of the encounter.

My favourite moments however were Clegg’s responses to the questions on Vladimir Putin and Tuition Fees.  There was nothing witty or clever about either.

On Fees he expressed himself to have a 9.5/10 ‘feel bad factor’.  This audience has not heard that sort of contrition from him before and there was almost a spontaneous round of applause.

On Putin, Clegg gave a sensible, clear response with the banterometer turned off.   But you could see the hosts and the audience listening.  He had come on the show as a figure of ridicule, but he left as someone people were listening to.  Clegg has fought for 5 years for the right to be listened to by this audience, and on the evidence of that tiny moment he may just have made a breakthrough.

Who knows whether this performance will mean anything in the long run.  Banter is not natural terrain for politicians and I don’t expect that to change overnight.  That said, with this performance Clegg has made a strong positive statement about the front-line politicians engaging in live TV banter – without the format or tone being changed to accommodate him and without looking ridiculous.  This is the sort of show that politicians should be on, reaching politically disengaged audiences on their terms.  I hope that others will follow his courageous lead.  It was good telly and refreshing to watch.

As a Lib Dem supporter I also hope something more comes from this.  If twitter is anything to go by (#cleggleg was trending at number 3 globally) something small but important has happened already.  This performance has given people cause to express something that we have not seen much of in the context of Nick Clegg in recent times – respect.   For a politician facing a tough election, that is even more valuable than good banter.  I hope he can build on it.

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