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We Asked Alex Salmond's Media Trainer Who Would Win The Television Debates

She was dubbed Salmond's "happiness guru" during the independence referendum. Now she's told BuzzFeed News who she thinks would win the proposed television debates.

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This week there's been a great deal of speculation about the proposed television debates between party leaders.

PA Archive/Press Association Images Jeff Overs / BBC

David Cameron has refused to take part in the television debates unless the Greens are also involved. Because Natalie Bennett's a woman and he's an awesome feminist?

Not quite. More because if party leaders appear alongside the prime minister, it elevates their position among the electorate. If Farage appears, UKIP could take more votes from the Tories, the Conservative party strategy goes, and so the best way to reduce the Labour vote is by getting the Greens involved to "split the left" vote.

And now the other party leaders have suggested that broadcasters use an empty chair to represent the prime minister during the debates if he doesn't show up.

BuzzFeed News spoke to Claire Howell, Alex Salmond's media trainer during the independence referendum, to get her thoughts on the debates.

Howell typically works with corporate clients of RED (the Really Effective Development company), but often works with the SNP and Plaid Cymru. According to a profile by The Guardian last year, she tells her clients to focus on positive language.

We wanted to know a few things: What should voters look out for during the debates? Do any of the leaders have weird habits? Who might win in the various formats? Does she have any tips for the various leaders?

What should the audience watch out for?

PA Archive/Press Association Images Jeff Overs/BBC

The first thing to look out for, Howell said, is how anxious a speaker looks. That's a tell-tale sign of someone being insincere and saying something for the sake of the audience rather than because they actually believe it.

"The thing to look out for," she said, "is do you think you're being manipulated, [and] if it's coming across as insincere, a bit sleazy."

Politicians "are schooled in saying 'I understand'", and this will often be preceded by something insincere because a lot of them can't relate to most voters.

Who does she think would win a debate between Cameron, Clegg, and Miliband?

Eddie Keogh / Reuters

Nevertheless, "I can absolutely understand why David Cameron has done what he has done," Howell said. "I think I wouldn't do the debates if I were him."

The prime minister's bolshy style can turn people off, according to Howell. "He has a habit of putting people down and it's not an attractive trait," she said. This is something for which Cameron was criticised only this Wednesday, when he responded to questions from Miliband about the television debates.

Fifty-three per cent of respondents to a poll for Red Box by YouGov described debate in parliament as "too loud, aggressive, and childish".

This is in stark contrast with Cameron's claim when he became leader of the Conservatives that he wanted to "end the Punch and Judy politics of Westminster, the name calling, backbiting, point scoring, finger-pointing".

Howell said: "He [puts people down] during Prime Minister's Questions and there might be a small section of it played on Radio 4 or a sketch in the paper, but it's not such a widely watched thing."

Howell said Cameron should borrow tactics she gave to Alex Salmond and move out from the podium.

Back away, bro.

Back away, bro.

There was a mini-Twitterstorm when Salmond walked away from the podium during last year's debates, but Howell said it would allow Cameron to give the impression of being more sincere and genuine.

But what about Clegg, who did so well last time? "I wouldn't turn up if I was him."

Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters

"Clegg has a real problem," she said. "He was manipulative. He wasn't principled enough to maintain his argument. Once you become a hypocrite it's very difficult to go back."

She had absolutely zero tips for Clegg. Moving on, then.

Who would win a one-on-one between Cameron and Miliband?

Dylan Martinez / Reuters

Howell had a lot to say about Miliband.

She immediately launched on his appearance on ITV's The Agenda with pop star Myleene Klass and referred to it as "classic Miliband". When Klass attacked him, Miliband failed to connect to viewers because he didn't lay out his own proposals, Howell said.

ITV / The Agenda

"Someone’s obviously coached Miliband to act like an Italian and wave his arms around," Howell said.

Getty Images / Christopher Furlong
Getty Images / Christopher Furlong
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Getty Images / Christopher Furlong

"And this pointing that he does, people think it's rude," and they question why he's doing it. (BuzzFeed News failed to find any mention of people complaining about this particular gesture.)

She said Cameron should agree to a debate with the Labour party leader.

"If I were Cameron," she said, "I would agree to do a one-on-one with Miliband because with the best coaching in the world, and with as much rehearsal, MIliband isn't going to look as good as Cameron.

"He's not going to come across well. He just does not connect with people. His language is bizarre – you think this man is odd."

"I mean, you remember the flag incident," Howell said. "He said ‘respect’, he’s the only person in the country who would have said that. He doesn’t think like a normal human being."

Sky News / Via

And what if Cameron got his way and there was a five-way contest between Cameron, Miliband, Clegg, Farage, and Bennett. Who would win then?

Andrew Winning / Reuters

Howell said that Bennett's inclusion would change the frame of the debate.

"I think politics in this country is fairly bruising and I don't think they would hold back.

"Because she's female, I think they'd probably take a softer view. Cameron, MIliband, Clegg, and Farage don't have a feminine side and it'll turn viewers off."

Howell likes Bennett, though. "She's got a very gentle style, almost too gentle," Howell said. "I'd be more robust if I were here. She just needs to work on being slightly more forceful. I like her."

"I can absolutely understand why Cameron would want her there."

And a four-way contest without Bennett?

Luke Macgregor / Reuters

"Miliband just doesn't look good on a screen and Clegg just has lost it for the party. You wouldn't trust him." And Cameron would come a close second.

Farage is populist and will say anything to get people to agree with him, she said. She did have some tips for him, though.

First, he should act more like a serious politician, especially in the televised stage. "Tone down attempts at humour and be more serious," she suggested.

And she shared the advice she gave to the other leaders to spell out his viewpoint more. She said: "Don't knock the others, but tell the voter what you are going to do."

What if Cameron refused to show up and it was just Miliband, Clegg, and Farage?

Getty Images Carl Court

Does she have a final tip for the politicians?

Be genuine, she said.

"The most important thing is to be the person you are. Do not try and be someone else because people see through it.

"Part of the problem is that the television debates are quite fake and people understand that."

Siraj Datoo is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Siraj Datoo at

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