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.