There is near unanimity that Nick Clegg won the first leaders’ debate – watched by more than 9m people most of whom seemed to stick with it all the way through. Rather harder to gauge is what that victory will mean and how it will alter the dynamic and outcome of the election.
The FT election panel podcast discussed this at length and these are their conclusions:
Some things appear clear still. Gordon Brown had a bad debate. Most polls place him a poor third and his aggressive style didn’t do serious damage to David Cameron but made Mr Brown himself look bad. His contempt for David Cameron was far too visible and did not look attractive.
The question is whether this will lead to a division among his campaign team. Mr Brown is surrounded largely by macho, aggressive testosterone-fuelled men who encourage his instinct to try to crush his opponents. Alastair Campbell - one of Mr Brown’s debate coaches – clearly still feels the approach worked:
GB beat DC hands down. Gordon won the debate on substance. Cameron was the runaway winner on shallowness. He seemed to get shallower the longer it went on. Beneath the veneer there was more veneer. Penetrate the generalities and there were more generalities.
GB was strong, authoritative, energetic, policy and substance focused, but also with occasional nice light touches. He was the only one who led the audience to break the rule on clapping.
Perhaps Alastair feels the need to keep spinning but I suspect he really believes this. This is not good news for Labour. They are right to try to damage David Cameron and make him look insubstantial but the approach deployed in the first debate seemed counter-productive even if Mr Cameron was subdued. The question is whether they can adapt the approach so that he can still undermine Mr Cameron without seeming so aggressive himself.
The problem for Labour is that David Cameron is trying to win the election giving away as little detail as possible. Labour needs the detail in order to attack him. The “shallow” line is effective but it is also an attempt to persuade pundits into taking it up and goading Cameron into giving away policy which might lose him votes.
Writing on Prospect James Crabtree wonders whether Clegg’s win is actually good for David Cameron:
The conventional wisdom before the event was that Clegg was the likely winner, simply by having a third of airtime. That he then proceeded to exceed that expectation was impressive. He had just the right mix of stories, good examples and calculated outrage. But because he won, Cameron also won too—that Clegg is the winner has little electoral significance, and nothing fundamental changed last night in the frame for the election as a whole.
The pre-meditated, calculated jabs didn’t work. One of the sports of last night was watching how the debate prep had worked out. Would anyone swing big? When would each leader use the pre-heated lines in their back pocket? It was, therefore, especially notable how few of these attacks worked. The tendency of all three to rely on ready-made everyday people—worst example, Cameron’s “the other day, I met a 40-year-old black man”—looked horribly forced.
Iain Dale, from the Conservative perspective is interesting because he correctly identified Cameron’s strategy of not going too negative, but he also is right to say that it was only half successful:
People tend not to like it when Cameron becomes aggressive. The dial tests show it. So instead, he adopted a strategy of appearing Prime Ministerial and not sinking to the depths of debating point scoring. He left that the Brown, and a fat lot of good it did him. In that sense, the Conservative strategy could be said to have worked.
Except it didn’t quite. Because Nick Clegg managed to attack the other two without veering into shrillness or too much petulance. And when he did, he quickly rowed back. Clegg attacked but seemed perfectly reasonable at the same time, and that’s what Cameron has got to do in the next two debates. He let Brown get away with blue (or red) murder last night. He can’t afford to let that happen again.
As I said, David Cameron is trying to win the election on as little detail as he can. That’s good tactics for most environments but it is problem in debates where a lack of substance makes it hard to go on the attack and hard to fend off the attacks on others.
So what happens now. There are two scenarios for the Lib Dems. The first is that while it proves good for Nick Clegg it changes very little in the fundamentals of voting intentions but drains Labour votes to the Lib Dems. This is clearly possible. An extreme scenario is that Mr Clegg drains away so many votes from Labour that he starts to catch up Mr Brown. That would be the cue for extreme panic in the Labour bunker although I doubt we are there yet.
There will be a temptation among Tories to “take the fight” to Nick Clegg next time, but I think this would be a mistake. Those Lib Dem seats where the Tories are second are also likely to be that much safer this morning but a strong Clegg is more likely to harm Labour than hurt the Tories. Also voters are not interested in seeing the third party slapped around; they are looking to see if the Conservatives can run the country.
So while there may be silver linings for the Tories, it is clear is that David Cameron patently failed to close the deal. He needs to do more to tackle the doubters and his next debates need to show him able to rise above his rivals.