The Final Leaders’ Debate

Birmingham was the scene for last night’s third and final Party Leaders’ Debate and completes a trilogy which has the potential to change the way British politics works forever. Whoever wins the election, whatever House of Commons permutation the voters throw up, things will probably never be quite the same again.

There were no gaffes, no surprises, no game-changing performances and no clear winner last night – it’s almost as if the leaders had all finally learned how the format works. The opening statements were all solid, with carefully chosen turns of phrase, and both Brown and Cameron have clearly learned the Clegg trick of directly addressing the viewers at home. It was also a surprisingly strong examination of policy.

In many respects Nick Clegg had the most to lose last night (remarkable when you consider the complexion of this campaign prior to the first debate). His dominant performance in Manchester a fortnight ago turned the 2010 Election on its head, leading to astonishing poll ratings for the Liberal Democrats which have broadly placed them ahead of Labour ever since. Clegg put in another impressive turn last night, even managing to perform strongly on immigration, an area that might not be considered to be a Lib Dem strong point. It was also notable that, throughout the debate, he seemed to listen more readily than the other two – Cameron and Brown gave the impression of simply waiting for their turn to speak.

David Cameron, who yesterday welcomed an endorsement from The Economist, came into this confrontation on the back of a poor performance in the first debate and only a marginal improvement in the second. Conservative commentators have spent the last two weeks predicting that he would pull a rabbit out of the hat when the pressure was on – instead he turned in another ordinary performance. He was never likely to fare well on economic policy, but he also managed to look dishonest and ill-briefed on immigration, a topic he might have expected to do well on. The spin in today’s Tory press is predictably of a positive nature, but another average performance last night merely highlights the surprising lack of impact the heavily marketed Cameron has had on this campaign. The Conservative operation threatens to be more than slightly jittery for the next seven days.

Gordon Brown, attempting to put the media feeding frenzy of ‘Bigotgate’ behind him, must have viewed this debate as a chance to concentrate on what he considers to be his strongest area: the economy. I think he put in his best debate performance, speaking confidently on his favourite subject. In his opening statement he made a smart move by admitting (referring to the incident in Rochdale) that he doesn’t always get things right, and throughout the debate he also deployed a good tactic of painting the Tories as the party of the 1930s. The problem is, the message is almost always lost in Brown’s delivery – no matter how hard he tries, television is not his medium.

Over the sequence of televised debates it’s clear that Nick Clegg has made the strongest impact of all the party leaders. Whether Labour and the Tories can shore up their vote share, which has dipped so dramatically over the campaign, is still unknown at this point. But what seems obvious is that Clegg, the clear winner over the three debates, is set to lead the Liberal Democrats to their best result since the party’s formation in the 1980s. This could still prove to be the greatest ‘change’ of all to Britain’s old-fashioned ways of doing politics.

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