Kudos to Clegg: the TV debates wash-up

by Stephen Tall on April 30, 2010

Three programmes, four-and-a-half hours of debate, endless analysis – but one thing’s for sure: Nick Clegg is alone among the three leaders in being able to reflect on them with real pleasure.

David Cameron and the Tories are buoyed by his performance yesterday; understandably so, as most instant polls called it a ‘win’ for him. But three weeks ago the Tories were polling in the 36-39% range, with most pundits predicting a narrow-but-decisive Tory majority. Currently, just a few days before polling day, the Tories are stuck in the 33-36% range.

Perhaps more significant, though is the way Cameron has had to re-write his script during this campaign. Tory advisors hoped it would be enough for their leader to portray himself as the only alternative to Gordon Brown. But then along came ‘Cleggmania’ and suddenly Cameron looked old hat: the mantle of change was snatched away from him by a more dynamic rival. With ratings dipping, the Tories’ answer was familiar enough: turn to the right.

And that’s exactly what Cameron has done. In the third debate last night, he showed the authentic face of Toryism: anti-European, anti-immigrant, anti-welfare. No wonder he looked more comfortable, and no wonder the Tory tribe was smiling today. At long last, their leader had ditched any pretence of building a big-tent mainstream party, and was reverting to the party’s comfort zone, shoring up its core vote.

But of this I am certain: that right-wing c.2005 Michael Howard display from Cameron last night was absolutely not where he wanted to be at this stage of the campaign. He wanted still to be faking it as that rather nice, small-l-liberal, metropolitan Conservative. Instead he has re-toxified the Tory brand in three weeks. If he wins a small majority, God knows what forces of conservatism will be unleashed by his party’s uber-right-wing.

And what of the man who has driven the Tories’ campaign to the right – Nick Clegg – why do I credit him with real kudos? Because he has, almost miraculously, completely stolen Cameron’s thunder in the past three weeks, grabbing not only the mantle of change, but also projecting himself as the still, calm voice of reasonableness and radicalism.

As I pointed out here on LDV, Clegg won last night’s debate among undecided and wavering voters, the most important group for any political leader to be reaching out to a week away from polling day. He did so by showing himself ready to work with the other parties, and by emphasising hs commitment to change and fairness, the two themes of the party’s manifesto.

That is a message Clegg has hammered home throughout this campaign, and in each one of the three televised debates. He has stuck to his script in a robust and disciplined way. It is a stark contrast with Cameron’s failure to sell, or even try to sell, the ‘Big Society’ to the public.

Perhaps more importantly – and let us not underestimate it – is that for three weeks running the leader of the Lib Dems has debated with the other two party leaders, and more than held his own. Indeed, in each of the debates he has convincingly out-debated the current Prime Minister, one of the most experienced politicians of his generation.

It has been a stellar performance from Nick Clegg in this campaign, not just because he is telegenic and personable, but because he has put forward liberal ideas in a serious, appealing way. Three-party politics is here to stay. Kudos to Clegg.