The first surprising thing was that it was not as boring as expected. Twenty minutes in, I was ready to switch off, but the three of them got more comfortable and engaged with each other in a way that US politicians would have struggled with. The “I met a woman the other day…” vignettes they all “casually” threw in were a bit naff, but probably worked. As for performances:
David Cameron: Despite what the polls say, I still think he was the strongest performer. He looked and sounded like a prime minister, and hit all the Daily Mail hot buttons (Taxes, school discipline, immigration, govt waste) that had to be hit. His apology for the expenses scandal, and his sensible approach to drug treatment was good. Not sure about mentioning his son (Gordon Brown lost a child too, and didn’t mention it) and watching him, he just was not as good as Tony Blair. But didn’t drop any clangers either, although I doubt the Chinese will be too happy that he pretty much singled them out for nuclear annhilation. There’s probably votes in that, all the same.
Gordon Brown: The prime minister did what many expected the debate to do for him, convinced those who supported him, and did little for any one else. He struggled with the “Yes, but why didn’t you do that in the last 13 years” and was quite naked in his love bombing of the Lib Dems (“I agree with Nick”). But, to his credit, once he got comfortable, and onto the economy, he was quite strong. The argument that the economy is fragile and the Tories will wreck the recovery is his best card, and he played it well. Also, his clutzy attempts at humour, thanking David Cameron for putting up smiling posters of him everywhere, was quite good in an awkward uncle kind of way. You can’t help thinking, when he mentions The X Factor, that he’s never seen it in his life. But then, there is a section of the country, who do vote, who will actually be quite happy that he doesn’t watch it.
Nick Clegg: The polls say he won it handsomely. I’m not convinced, and I support him. I’m always suspicious of a guy who says he’s going to be honest with you. However, he did have some very strong moments: His exasperated attack on Cameron and Brown for voting against the very political reforms (that he proposed in the Commons) they now espouse was the closest thing to a knock out blow. Also on Trident he set up clear water between him and them, which is not as risky as it would have been in the 1980s. Having said that, he failed to stress that the Lib Dems do not want Britain to cease being a nuclear power, a point he may have to correct in the coming days, as there is very little support in the UK for unilateral disarmament anymore. His line “the more I hear of them, the more they sound the same” got one of the few sponteneous audience reactions. Overall, Nick Clegg will have reason to be the most pleased of the three. For many voters, it will have been their first real look at him, and he came across as thoughtful, relatively sincere, and safe, which will not do him any harm with the Pissed-off-with-Labour-but-not-sure-about-the-Tories voter.