The general consensus seems to be that Cunliffe ‘won’ the debate although not overwhelmingly. Various pundits have wondered what happened to Key. Why wasn’t he funnier? Didn’t he prepare enough?
I think Key’s problem last night went a bit deeper than that. The premise of National’s campaign is that everything is basically okay; they haven’t introduced any significant policy this election, but Key ‘hopes’ that there will be tax cuts at some stage in the future.
If you look at the polls most people agree that the country is heading in the right direction, so National’s ‘don’t rock the boat’ strategy makes a lot of sense. But when you put Key up on the debate stage with Cunliffe, who hammered issues like house prices and foreign land sales which the majority of the country thinks are not okay, and which Labour has policy solutions for but National does not, then Key is at a huge disadvantage. Most of the debate consisted of Cunliffe identifying problems and proposing solutions, with Key insisting that the problems didn’t exist and Cunliffe’s solutions wouldn’t work. Key never had the chance to articulate his solutions or his vision, because he doesn’t have any. It’s hard to joke your way past that.