First thoughts on the debate which was much more lively than many expected:
1) Nick Clegg dominated proceedings and must be held to have been the clear winner in the actual contest. He always had the easiest task and it is no surprise he came out well but I never expected him to be quite such a commanding figure. He was clear, articulate, forceful without being overly aggressive. He seemed relaxed (possibly too much so – I wondered about the hands in the pocket stance) and always spoke directly to the camera.
Perhaps by the end we’d heard a bit too much of him (had it ended at 60 minutes it would have been an utter rout) and perhaps people will get sick of him over three debates, but he used this debates to establish himself as a major figure in British politics and has the most reason to be pleased with the evening. How this translates into votes is more complex as it doesn’t tackle the issue of a wasted vote but it can’t have done any harm.
2) Gordon Brown was also unsurprising. He had to come out fighting and he did. His task was not to win new fans but to damage David Cameron. He was confident and combative. There’s no doubt his team will be initially delighted and think he knocked Mr Cameron out of the ring, showing up the issues he didn’t want to answer. At first this seemed effective, but as the evening wore on it seemed overly aggressive and may well have proved counter-productive. The idea of the “great clunking fist” was reinforced and it is not clear this is a good thing. His self-satisfied grin as he delivered his pre-prepared attack lines looked off-putting and there was the air of testosterone that drives his team of close aides. He had some good attack questions but may well feel less pleased with the evening as the days wear on. The true test of how it went for him will be if he tries the same approach next week. If he does, then the polling will have shown it worked. If he softens his tone, we will know the advisers felt his macho-style was counter-productive.
3) David Cameronwas by far the most surprising of the three. Pinned in the middle, he often seemed under attack and subdued. Mr Brown put him under pressure and he didn’t manage to push back well; when he tried to change the subject it seemed contrived. He also seemed intentionally to be avoiding the aggressive style of the prime minister even eschewing one open-goal on under-equipped troops. A former Tory spin doctor who was watching with me said he was being deliberately “statesmanlike”. This, I think, was overly rose-tinted but as the evening progressed it did seem a calculated strategy to seem calm under fire and to avoid the most extreme yah-boo politics. He was most effective on the caring sections talking well about his son, the NHS and carers and in being the first to apologise for the expenses scandal. Unlike Mr Clegg, he did not punch out snappy remedies and policy plans but again this must have been a deliberate calculation His “sunny uplands” message at the end reinforced this view even if it seemed a bit hokey. No-one could say Mr Cameron won the debate; the issue for him was whether by seeming to back away from the fray he created a more positive, prime ministerial image of himself in the minds of voters. Many pundits may well mark him down for the evening. In pure debating terms, they would be right and if that is the universal verdict voters may well accept it. The Tory communications team are clearly working to a different script however. It didn’t work for me, but then I’m not the target audience.