David Cameron and Nick Clegg naturally had the toughest tasks today when they faced young voters for the Sky question-and-answer sessions because they are having to defend policies their government has pursued. Clegg, who is normally very good at Q&As, grew rather wound up when having to defend the tuition fees U-turn and seemed more on the defensive than he needed to. Cameron has just finished his session, where his demeanour that normally makes him appear commanding and Prime Ministerial gave him a slightly wooden quality as he answered questions. It underlined why Cameron wants to avoid the debates: he will have to defend what he has done while opposition leaders have more room to talk about what they would do, which is easier even when everyone likes using the phrase ‘difficult decisions’.
But the Prime Minister did tackle two of the most difficult issues (aside from a surprising question about VAT on tampons that he probably hadn’t prepped for that left Cameron wittering and blushing) very well. He was asked to defend cutting housing benefit for 18-21 year-olds while maintaining universal pensioner benefits such as the winter fuel payment. Even if you disagree with the Prime Minister on this policy, his answer was very good:
‘The reason for this is I think, as I’ve been saying earlier, when young people leave school I think there should be opportunities to earn by doing an apprenticeship or getting a job, or opportunities to learn, by an apprenticeship or going to university. But I think the option of leaving school, signing on, moving out of home, getting a flat and living on housing benefit, I don’t think that is any start to a life at all, so I don’t think it should be an option. Now of course there are some people who for whatever reason cannot live at home and have to be away from their parents, and they we will always help.’
He didn’t really answer the point on pensioner benefits, and was again challenged by an audience member who said he was talking about a minority of people and that this was a big mistake. It’s a good point, but the Prime Minister repeated his answer again, saying not doing an apprenticeship or getting a job or going to university was a ‘bad option’.
The other sticky spot for the Prime Minister was when he was asked to defend the decision to fly flags at half mast following the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. He defended Britain’s relationship with the kingdom, claiming that hundreds of lives had been saved because of some Saudi intelligence on terrorism. But then in a follow-up question, Cameron was asked ‘do you think oil has anything to do with it?’. he replied:
‘Yes, of course, yes. I think it’s very important to answer that question directly and say of course Britain needs to have relationships with countries that we trade with including those that we buy oil and gas from, we can’t make all of our oil and gas here in the UK, we’re doing well ‘cos we’ve got North Sea Oil, so yes we do have relationships with those countries, but it’s perfectly possible – ‘
Questioner: ‘to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses?’
‘No, well that’s not what we do. It’s perfectly possible to go to those countries as I do and raise human rights abuses with them. I would argue if you have a relationship with them and you’re talking to them, they’re more likely to listen to you than if you just cut yourself off…’
Now this is a difficult stance to defend when some want purity in foreign policy. But the Prime Minister did make a decent case for engaging with countries whose behaviour Britain doesn’t fully approve of.
But overall, I suspect few left that session feeling more energised about voting Conservative. And that’s why Cameron wants to avoid debates where he’ll be up against politicians who, for various reasons, will come across as more relaxed and more enthusiastic.