I watched the debate last night with a group of people invited to a bar in central London by a PR company. I have five reflections.
1. Clegg won, therefore Cameron “won.” The conventional wisdom before the event was that Clegg was the likely winner, simply by having a third of airtime. That he then proceeded to exceed that expectation was impressive. He had just the right mix of stories, good examples and calculated outrage. But because he won, Cameron also won too—that Clegg is the winner has little electoral significance, and nothing fundamental changed last night in the frame for the election as a whole.
2. Brown did better than expected, but still came in third. In one sense Gordon Brown could have been said to have “needed” something to change in the debate. It is, after all, one of his few opportunities to shift the nature of the race, and get people to “take a fresh look at Labour.” My sense is that didn’t happen. That said, Brown was good in parts, and certainly wasn’t notably the worst of the three performances. He avoided the trap of appearing to patronise his two, younger, likely less knowledgeable opponents; a genuine risk, skilfully avoided. His was also the strongest message, ramming home the “don’t risk the recovery” line again, and again—which will, I suspect, have sunk in with the audience at home. (By contrast, Cameron’s message, for instance when he mentioned the big society, seemed much less clear.) All that said, Brown’s communicating style is obviously more forced than both his opponents, and his sentences still feel like deeply condensed PowerPoints. It was an adequate performance, but not close to the game changer he needed.
3. The pre-meditated, calculated jabs didn’t work. One of the sports of last night was watching how the debate prep had worked out. Would anyone swing big? When would each leader use the pre-heated lines in their back pocket? It was, therefore, especially notable how few of these attacks worked. The tendency of all three to rely on ready-made everyday people—worst example, Cameron’s “the other day, I met a 40-year-old black man”—looked horribly forced. Brown’s worst lines were his sly jabs about Michael Ashcroft and so forth, which made him look petty and political. Clegg used his “the real problem here…