TV election debate

Jim Pickard

Ladbrokes is offering tempting odds on the viewing figures for tomorrow’s debate. It has 3/1 on an audience of 5m-9.99m and 5/4 on 10m-14.99m.

The former in particular seems like a very generous offer:the first debate got an audience of 9.4m on ITV and the second got 4m on Sky, reflecting the latter’s generally lower viewing figures.

I’m also putting a bet on the slightly higher range, just in case more people turn out for the grand spectactular on the BBC. (I’m not betting that they stay for the full 90 minutes, however). 

The FT’s expert election panel will occasionally be giving their thoughts on the big themes of the campaign. Today, they each write a memo to their leader giving advice for Thursday night’s debate and the remainder of the run-up to the polls.

Charles Lewington, former press secretary to John Major:
David, you have three tasks in the final days – rebutting Labour’s attack on your economic policies, continuing with the tedious but important process of warning about the dangers of hanging the parliament and taking the gloss off the freshly minted Liberal Democrat brand without attacking Clegg personally. 

Jim Pickard

I couldn’t resist placing two bets on Thursday’s debate. Curiously, David Cameron is favourite to win, perhaps because (at least at first glance) he seemed to come out on top last time around. I’m not so certain.

Labour are confident that their man will emerge triumphant because the economy is his strong suit. I doubt it; Gordon Brown will be hugely vulnerable to accusations that he failed to see the crash coming (Clegg and Cameron will surely remind him of his hubristic phrase ‘no return to boom and bust’). Viewers may also be sceptical of his claims that the economy is at risk in any hands other than his own. 

OK. A contentious proposition. The TV debates with which we are all enthralled are not setting the agenda of this election; they are simply confirming it. This is not to underplay their significance but it is important to understand their limits.

When the Conservatives conduct their post-mortems on this general election, many will conclude that his poor performance in the first debate and his agreement to Nick Clegg’s inclusion is what cost him victory. (Obviously, this is one of those posts that presumes he is not headed for an outright victory.) 

It’s 45 minutes since the debate ended so here’s a first settled view

Nick Clegg had another good debate. Perhaps not as stellar as last time but again he was very strong and there were real touches of Obama in his peroration and call for a politics that could be different and he ended witha real flourish. He did seem a little flustered at one point when the other two ganged up on him but ironically their aggression may work for him. He was particularly effective when dealing with his weakest subjects. He was very good in the immigration round but it is hard to know if his debating talents will compensate for the fact that he is pushing an unpopular policy – an amnesty for illegal immigrants. It is hard to see him losing much ground on this. There was nothing to stop his momentum and if anything he may have cemented his position. he will be pretty pleased tonight. 

Jim Pickard

Jim: 10.31pm: Okay, thanks very much for all the comments, feedback and emails. Looking forward to seeing you all again in a week’s time for the grand showdown. Thanks again.

Jim: 10.13pm: Don’t want to give you opinion poll fatigue but there’s one more worth showing you – here’s a link to it. Ipsos MORI (for Reuters) suggests that support for Lib Dems has doubled in marginal seats, from 11 per cent to 23 per cent. Interestingly, the party isn’t taking seats from either of the two main parties. Instead:

The Liberal Democrat gains have come almost completely from people who were not sure they would vote a fortnight ago and now say they are sure that they will.

Jim: 10.07pm: A thought about Gordon Brown. His team must be delighted (if ComRes is right) that he has held his own with Cameron. That was not predicted by anyone. But the three seem to be bunched closely together, still, which bodes ill for anyone who doesn’t want a hung Parliament.

Jim: 10.01pm: It gets worse for the Tories – although Ladbrokes is paying out on a Cameron debate victory, interestingly. hat-tip Sophy Ridge at News of the World:

While David Cameron claimed victory in the instant poll done by YouGov/The Sun, Nick Clegg has stolen the crown in a poll by ComRes/ITV. The Lib Dem leader clinched victory with 33 per cent of the vote, with Brown and Cameron neck and neck on 30 per cent. And a massive 36 per cent said they planned to vote Lib Dem after tonight’s debate – more than both the Tories and Labour.

 

In last night’s episode:

Gordon declared his love for Nick; but Nick doesn’t love Gordon and remembers that when he did love Gordon, Gordon didn’t love him. But Nick is quietly flirting with David Miliband and Alan Johnson, who’ve always liked him a bit more, while trying not to make it too obvious what he is up to in case all the people who like him at the moment stop liking him once they find out what he is up to. Also we’re not really that sure that Gordon does love Nick; we think he doesn’t really. 

David Cameron’s new election broadcast is on the Conservative website. Apparently this was rushed into production and the old one junked so that his Daveness could project a more positive message and reclaim the mantle of the candidate for change.

There’s a touch of a Richard Curtis movie about the clip. There’s Mr Cameron looking unruffled and charming in his Notting Hill back garden. The grass is lush, the sun is shining and there’s a simply super kid’s play area at the back of the shot. I didn’t see Hugh Grant in the background but you feel he was probably inside helping himself to the last brownie. There’s no soundtrack by Wet,Wet, Wet, but Take That’s Gary Barlow was in an earlier Cameron movie. 

Nick Clegg has a problem but it’s a nice kind of problem. The Lib Dem leader is enjoying a remarkable poll surge which he needs to defend and enhance. He is unlikely to be troubled by most of the attacks other parties are likely to launch on him, which will seem only to prove his point that the other two are just the two old relics defending the status quo.

But one attack does cause him difficulties and it is no surprise therefore that the Tories are pressing it hard. The “Vote Clegg, Get Brown” line is effective for two reasons. The first is that it could shore up wavering Conservatives and the second is that if it takes root it can undermine the Lib Dem claim to be the true party of change. As I wrote yesterday, the change mantle is the one David Cameron needs to reclaim if he is to win and it is the one he foolishly ceded to Nick Clegg in the debate. The claim that a Lib Dem surge could sustain Mr Brown unless the Labour vote collapses entirely has the added advantage of being true. 

As my Alphaville colleagues would say, it’s tin hat time for the Conservatives. You don’t have to believe the huge Lib Dem poll surge in its entirety to know both parties have a big problem. Labour is counting on the Clegg boost doing enough to deny the Tories a majority (and possibly even the largest number of seats) but not becoming so strong as to do real damage to Mr Brown. It is also enjoying the Conservative discomfort and counting on the Cameron campaign self-destructing. This seems understandable but very risky. The Lib Dem surge could leave Mr Brown hanging on but it is surely not something around which to build a strategy.

Mr Cameron has a more fundamental problem. Unlike Mr Brown he was in control of his destiny and needs to be so again if he is to win. He had a simple plan – to persuade voters that he was the change they so desperately want But he has allowed himself to be sidetracked from that message (bleating on about a national insurance contributions rise few understand) and in the TV debate the change mantle was seized by Mr Clegg. Mr Cameron’s team have made the schoolboy error of thinking that winning a media war on NI contributions was the same as winning round voters. It wasn’t. 

Lex on the election debate – The FT
Clegg promised the earth and got away with it – Norman Tebbit
The case for Nick Clegg – Peter Hoskin on Spectator Coffee House
The Tories need to knock out Nick Clegg - Julian Glover in The Guardian
The secret to Clegg’s success – Adam Boulton on Sky
The great debate was boring – Adrian Michaels in The Telegraph

The next must reads post will be on Sunday. For all the election news and analysis over the weekend see the FT’s election indepth.

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.