Practice makes perfect for Nick Clegg – what I wrote for the Grauniad

by Stephen Tall on April 17, 2010

I’ve a short article over at The Guardian’s Comment Is Free website giving my post-debate analysis. It was originally written about an hour after the debate concluded (immediately after I’d written up my Lib Dem Voice verdict – oddly, I came to the conclusion that Clegg won in both), though subsequently updated to include news of the ComRes poll-that-was-a-Twitter-sensation-before-it-turned-out-not-to-be-a-sensation putting the Lib Dems second. Thankfully, I stuck to a cautious tone, though I’d already heard off-the-record that there would be a poll today showing the Lib Dems in second place.

The purpose of this article was to show that Nick Clegg’s winning performance was no fluke, but the fulfilment of a deliberate strategy – a strategy which is paying off right now.

It was Nick Clegg’s night, of that there’s no doubt. The only disagreement in the immediate post-debate opinion polls so far is the margin of his win in the first televised leaders’ debate, with Populus finding 61% of the public saying the Lib Dem leader did best, YouGov 51% and ComRes 46%. I think most Lib Dems will be happy to accept any one of those.

With even David Cameron conceding that Clegg enjoyed a “good debate”, all attention now will be fixed on whether the debate will affect the national opinion polls. As I type, there is much excited chatter on Twitter of a ComRes poll showing the Lib Dems surging into second place with 35%, just behind the Tories on 36%, with Labour lagging behind on 24%.

It’s a single poll, and one that asked only voters who watched the debate, so cautious Lib Dem heads will take it with a pinch of salt. But if it’s findings are echoed by other polls in the coming days, then last night’s debate will come to be seen as a sesimic moment in an otherwise subdued campaign.

So what was it that made Clegg’s appearance such a success, and – potentially – a real game-changer in this election? At least in part, it’s the practise that the Lib Dem leader has put in. I don’t mean the intensive ‘debate camp’ cramming all three leaders have undertaken in recent weeks, but rather the scores of town hall meetings he’s been holding up and down the country since he was elected in 2007. Not only have they earned the party much-needed regional media exposure during those longueurs between elections when the media forgets the Lib Dems exist, they have enabled Nick to hone his style, the way he answers voters’ questions, and engages directy with them.

You could see that fully on display in the debate: making sure he recalled the names of the audience members, linking their questions directly to the experiences of people he’s met on his travels, connecting the themes and questions running throughout the evening. Yes, occasionally it veered towards the smooth, even slick; but he pulled it off through sheer verve, addressing directly in turn the questioners, his fellow leaders and the viewers at home. It was a masterclass, which left David Cameron looking like an increasingly frustrated prefect who’d been upstaged at his school prize-giving by an irksome upstart.

The question for Clegg now is: can he sustain his advantage in the following two debates? He currently has the all-important big-mo, but there are still three hours of debates to come. The next one, focusing on foreign policy, should play well to his natural internationalism. But you can be sure Messrs Brown and Cameron will be thinking hard in the days ahead how they can knock off course the Lib Dems’ accelerating election bandwagon.