by Stephen Tall on April 15, 2010
I cannot tell you how good it is to be able to type the words, “Nick Clegg was the clear winner”, and know that not only is it my view, but that it’s the public view, too. We’ve already published the two poll results which matter: those showed Nick was judged to have done best by 51%, with Cameron on 29% and Brown on 19% (YouGov), and Nick 46%, Cameron 26%, Brown 20% (ComRes).
Nick Clegg … it’s true, Nick had a couple of advantages going into the debate. He’s the least known, so merely being given equal status is already a win. True, too, expectations were lower for Nick. But even allowing for that, this was an important night for Nick. Those of us who have watched Nick at his town hall meetings will have been familiar enough with the style: natural, conversational, honest, open, personable. Though all were nervous, at least initially, Nick appeared to shrug off the jitters most quickly. His body language, crucial in a debate like this, was engaging, both with the audience in the studio, and the audience at home. What people saw tonight was the Real Nick Clegg. They seem to like him.
Gordon Brown … the Prime Minister started with low expectations, but for a different reason than Nick: most people have already made up their minds that he’s not up to the job. I was relatively (and I stress the word relatively) impressed with Brown’s performance. He was relaxed, confident, and assertive without being overly aggressive. Of course, he cannot cure his own habit of speaking only in statistics, and failing to relate them to voters’ everyday lives; the smile is still a bizarre combination of scary and wooden; and he should never again attempt a joke in public. But, still, I thought he did okay. I suspect that the fact the public has placed him in last place in the instant polls shows more that they have simply turned off from what he has to say.
David Cameron … the Tory leader in some ways did have the toughest job: he had the highest expectations, he is the man still most likely to be the next PM. For my money, he performed least well of the three. He had a couple of good moments, most notably his impassioned answer on crime. But they were the exceptions. For much of the rest of the debate he appeared static, plastic, downbeat, monotonal, nervy. At PMQs, Cameron comes across as the ace debater, but tonight he kept walking into elephant traps, not least repeating how much he loved the Lib Dems’ tax cuts, giving Nick more than one opportunity to spell out what they meant and how they’d be paid for. The polls are currently saying Cameron came second; but I wonder if the narrative will change in the days ahead, as Tory supporters digest that their guy was bested by the Lib Dem leader?
Overall … It was a knackeringly lengthy debate, 30 minutes too long, with no breaks at all. All three leaders looked and sounded tired by the end, and I imagine the studio audience did, too. The debate was much more vigorous and fluid than had been predicted, with plenty of interaction between the leaders. That made it fascinating to watch, but meant there was no real probing of their claim and counter-claim. As a result, almost all the post-match commentary has focused on the leaders’ debating style, rather than the debate content. We will see more policy analysis, more fact-checking, of what the leaders said in the days to come (I suspect all made slips during the programme), but the public will have moved on.
It seems likely the polls in the next few days will give the Lib Dems a poll boost. The challenge now is for the party to maintain and build that growth in the three weeks which remain of the campaign.