Let’s start at the end: I think Cameron won this one. He looked much more confident than in previous debates, and seemed on the front foot in the back-and-forth. His soundbite about the “confusion” between goverment and economy was a new idea since last week’s debate (though variations on this theme have been on Tory posters for a couple of years) and was craftily put, the sort of thing that might persuade undecideds, rather than a preach to the choir. It is not a truism by any means, but Brown failed to muster comparable rhetoric to fight back.
Cameron also had very strong rhetoric when he spoke about “saving £1 in every £100 spent”. He suggested that this could mean saving on a local council’s glossy brochure, a highly dubious claim (do authorities with a £1bn budget really spend £10 million on communications?) but he nevertheless sounded credible.
Clegg looked beleageured in the first 10 minutes, but came into his own on the question about manufacturing. His Sheffield constituency brings him a certain credibility. He began by raising the need for growing the green industries – Clegg has always been the first to mention the environment, and it is a noteworthy difference between him and the other two men. As in the previous debates, he looked strongest when under attack on his illegal-immigration amnesty policy. It is humane and pragmatic and both Tories and Labour look ‘nasty’ when they belittle it.
Oh yeah: I made a prediction earlier, which turned out to be correct:
At no point in #LeadersDebates has anyone sunk to tabloid level. So I predict #Bigotgate will not be mentioned tonight.
Brown excelled when he was speaking like a Chancellor of the Exchequer. If ever there was a walking example of the Peter Principle, Brown is it. With the housing question, Brown gave a lengthy four point answer on building societies, and was clearly enjoying himself.
Overall, I think these debates have harmed the Labour campaign. How could they not? Brown is fighting the election on a 13-year record, and each and every question in these debates is on a problem that has not yet been solved. This stuctural handicap was most stark during Brown’s “no life on the dole, that’s my policy” soundbite. Cameron threw that right back at him, and many Labour party members would have let slip a small nod in agreent with the Conservative leader. A little later, Brown mentioned NEETs, and Cameron again easily pinned failures on the Prime Minister’s collar.
It’s no great insight that the debates have been a boon for Clegg, who has been the most talked about politician this past fortnight. Ultimately, the Lib Dem leader has looked comfortable and credible alongside the other two – but can you imagine the debates with Sir Menzies Campbell in his stead?
The BBC turned in the best production of the three broadcasters. We saw an uncluttered set design and an equally sparse screen. Much less claustrophobic. The only weird element was the slowly changing screen colour, which was a distraction, but forgivable. Dimbleby, a veteran of Question Time (as well as, incidentally, the Bullingdon Club) made one or two interventions which were shrewd and kept the conversation moving.
This is a great development in British politics. The rise of Clegg could, and should, deliver a hung parliament, which in turn should result in electoral reform. More political engagement will be the result.