Nick Clegg may have rebuffed Gordon Brown’s advances during the great debate, but the Labour leadership is not giving up on the possibility of a post-election pact to keep the party in government after May 6.

Andrew Adonis was first out after the debate with an effort to keep alive the flame of romance. Mr Clegg, Lord Adonis told BBC Radio 4, may be playing hard to get for purpose of the campaign, but on all the big issues the Lib Dems are much closer to Labour than to the Conservatives. Whether it’s tax, political reform or fairness, the two parties of the centre-left are on the side of the progressives. 

Strangely enough, on the night they were more or less as they are. There were no knock-out blows and no dreadful slip-ups.

Gordon Brown looked remarkably like, well, Gordon Brown – a bruising juggernaut of a politician who attracts respect and loathing according to taste. David Cameron displayed the fluency and charm that comes easily to Tory toffs. Nick Clegg stuck to the practised, occasionally sanctimonious script that the two big parties have had their chance. 

Gordon has Sarah; David has Samantha; and Nick has Vince.

The Liberal Democrats are having a good campaign. There is no reason to suppose that the publication of the party’s manifesto will change that.

The uncertainty about the election outcome has assured Mr Clegg of plenty of exposure. The televised leaders’ debates will treat him as a nearly equal alongside Gordon Brown and David Cameron. There is nothing that more excites the media than the possibility that the Lib Dems might hold the balance of power in a hung parliament. 

There’s something to be said for David Cameron’s Big Society; that’s not to say it adds up to a programme for government. It’s one thing to issue a clarion call to the nation’s little platoons. Another to believe that a welcome revival of civic engagement and personal responsibility is a plausible substitute for public provision. The tension running through the Conservative manifesto is the assumption that a proactive state and a flourishing society are necessarily inimical.

A closer look at Scandinavia, from where the Tories say they have drawn many of their best ideas, would have informed Mr Cameron otherwise. The style of the manifesto – an invitation to voters to join the Conservatives in building the Big Society – is a gimmick: clever or silly according to taste. I confess I blanched when I read Mr Cameron’s opening exhortation: “Yes, together we can do anything”. When George Osborne urged the nation to join him in building a new economy, I imagined the lines of the jobless snaking around the Treasury. 

If you are looking for the headline amid the avalanche of pledges and promises – some significant, many dubious – in Labour’s manifesto it is that the party has rediscovered its faith in social democracy. The thread running through Gordon Brown’s prospectus is that government makes the difference.

My doubts lie in the balance between supportive (“active” in Peter Mandelson’s favourite phrase) and suffocating government. Labour has it broadly right on the economy and mostly wrong on the shape of public services. 

The Treasury Mandarins, I am told, are weeping into their (Earl Grey) tea. Whatever happened to the age of austerity?

When David Cameron gave his party conference speech last autumn austerity was the big idea. The Conservatives, he said, were ready to do their historic duty and clean up the fiscal mess left by Labour. Big spending cuts were a certainty and nobody should think about tax cuts during a first Tory term. 

The Conservatives have been winning the argument about National Insurance Contributions (NICs) – but not because they have got the arithmetic right. The Tory numbers are as flaky as Labour claims.  David Cameron has thus far come out on top because: 1. Lots of business chiefs say he is right; 2. His is the simpler case to put across; and 3; The media is inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

As far as the numbers go there are two areas of controversy.

The first concerns whether an increase in NICs is more likely than other tax rises (an increase, say, in VAT) to cost people their jobs. I heard Stuart Rose of Marks & Spencer pontificating on this on Radio 4. My instant reaction was that Sir Stuart would do better to stick to retailing. The real answer is we don’t know. 

Who reads election speeches? Certainly not voters and, mostly, not the journalists whose job you might imagine it is to report them. As an editor friend at the BBC tells me, news these days is all about “impact” rather than content; and, unless you are Barack Obama, speeches just do not do it.

But some speeches are worth a second glance. This – from Peter Mandelson – is one of them. 

Good riddance! Cynics have called it the rotten parliament. Britain has been governed by cheats and charlatans. The expenses scandal sees MPs leaving Westminster this week in disgrace: some justifiably so, many others unfairly tainted by the greed of colleagues.

Scarred by the  experience of joining second car dealers, estate agents and journalists in the gutter of public esteem, about a quarter of MPs have decided to retire. Whatever the election outcome, the House of Commons that convenes after May 6 will bear little resemblance to its predecessor.