I watched the debate in a pub in central London, largely filled with people who were supporting the Labour party. Here are some quick thoughts.
1. Clegg won again. It was a weird moment of deja vu: a bit closer than last time, but Clegg’s was still, in my mind, the superior performance. The post-match polls seemed split: some gave it to him outright, others to the other two. But from the half way point—as I said here—I thought Clegg was ahead. Cameron and Brown didn’t do enough at the end to bring it back. Some of Clegg’s answers were especially eye-catching: his thoughtful response on the visit of the Pope for instance, and his admission that “I am not a man of faith.” After the first debate my argument was “Clegg won, therefore Cameron won.” At some basic level this clearly was wrong—I didn’t expect Clegg’s surge to be as powerful as it has been this week (although, to be fair, neither did anyone else.). This time I think no such clever interpretation is needed: Clegg won, and so he won.
2. Clegg’s victory under fire was all the more impressive. For all the deja vu , this was a more impressive performance second time around. Clegg had been under heavy fire for the last two days, especially from the Telegraph and the Mail. Brown and Cameron had a week to think how to reveal his perceived weaknesses—anti-nuclear, pro-EU, pro-immigrant, pro-hung parliament, political ingenue—and they duly did so last night. Yet, with a few exceptions Clegg seemed calm, able to roll with the punches, and punch back. He was the best (again) at telling stories and connecting with the audience. (His example about the mechanics worried about sand in their kit was a rare example of a story that really worked well, in a context where such stories are now suspected—as per Cameron’s “40 year old black man” last time and his risible “I went for a jog this morning with a soldier” this time.) So, I think, given the circumstances, it was more all the more impressive to have won this time.
3. Brown now has a significant problem. There is a real danger that Labour now find themselves solidly—in the polls, in the public eye and in the mind of media—the third party in this election. Brown was, again, competent last night—better than last time, when he didn’t perform badly at all. His line about Cameron wanting “the big society at home and little Britain abroad” was a terrific zinger, as was his “get real” attack on Clegg on nuclear weapons. His “David risks the economy, Nick risks our security” was good, and he remained good at ramming home Labour’s central ” don’t risk the recovery” message. But it wasn’t enough. Again, remember, the reason Brown took these debates was to allow himself the chance to upset the momentum of this race in his own favour—and that, self-evidently, has not happened.
4. David Cameron did well, is still in a troubling place, but remains the most likely PM. Not to defend too much my “Clegg wins, so Cameron wins” line—but at some deeper level, there is a truth to it. Cameron is still the most likely PM out of this. Last night he, again, performed well, a close second in my view. He had some arch exchanges, scoring points against Brown on the “dodgy leaflets” question, and he managed to attack Clegg without looking bad in so doing. He had some passion. He even said “I agree with Gordon,” and got a laugh for it. The right-wing papers are hailing his performance as a win, and so—who knows?—it might come to be seen as so. His party certainly are going to claim that he did win, and this time this interpretation will have some limited plausibility.
Yet he is still having big problems. Clegg has stolen his “change” message. The”big society” notion is translating badly as a TV message. Much more importantly, his party are getting rattled. He has lost a lead suitable to win a majority, and he hasn’t (in my view) won either debate, arguably coming second in both. He is not where he wants to be, and if Clegg’s polls continue he may well get hit with more doubts within his own party—which the media will enjoy. This partly depends on whether the Conservatives can spin this out as a win. In any case given the electoral geography, and the polls, he is still (barring a further Lib-Dem rise) ahead in the country. (The caveat here is the one where the electoral system delivers a result in which Labour comes third and wins most seats—a genuine worry for its problems of legitimacy.) But parking that, the most likely option is still a Conservative victory overall, and a Con majority or a Conservative-Liberal pact. Brown’s attempts to woo the Lib-Dems are being rebuffed, and the simple act of looking like a winner (and talking endlessly about the “old politics”) is going to make it difficult for Clegg to keep Brown in power. Not impossible—especially with AV+ on the table—but very difficult.
5. The new narrative is going to be quiet panic from Labour and the Conservatives. What do they do now? This is the last chance saloon. Two weeks, and only one of these things to go. One chance for Brown to break through, one chance for Cameron to win a debate. But where to go next? Attack Clegg more? Big, visible shake-ups to regain the momentum? Or don’t panic, steady as she goes? Who knows? Even so, a lot rides on next Thursday. In between, it is tricky to imagine Clegg’s poll rating going down after this. It is perfectly possible it will go up, raising the question of whether he can, really—really?—win the popular vote. Scrutiny of Clegg (and more importantly, the rest of his party) will therefore continue, and rightly so. Plenty of holes are surely going to be found in the party, his platform, and his patchy front bench. (I’m imagining quite a lot of talking points that say: “Ok, so Clegg is a good debater, but what would be like in government?”) If I had to guess, my sense is it is going to be difficult for the Lib-Dems to go up much more in the polls—to do so would require eating into the core votes of both other parties—but after last week, frankly, who knows? But in a deeper sense, this now really is Clegg’s election. He has dominated the agenda for the second week, and is going to dominate the early part of the third. And it does begin to look like, come 7th May, while still unlikely to be king himself, he is going to be the kingmaker.