Well there it was. TV history in the making. It was exciting just for the fact it happened. Even if nothing really did happen. There was no “you’re no Jack Kennedy” moment. No zinger from one candidate which turned the election. No sweaty Nixon pallor. That may still be to come.
Each of the three party leaders was incredibly controlled: over 90 minutes none of them appeared to put a physical step wrong. No arrogant rolling of the eyes. No weird facial gestures. No checked watches. Indeed it makes you wonder how the US Presidential candidates have got it so wrong in the past.
Gordon Brown didn’t chew his nails. David Cameron didn’t sing the Eton Boating song. Nick Clegg didn’t freeze with fright at being in the playground with the big boys.
All of them had clearly practised the same approach – it was show not tell. Play out the anecdote of the latest school you’ve visited. The latest nurse you’ve spoken to. The latest crime victim you’ve salivated over.
But there was at least a clear winner: as with “Ask the Chancellors” this was the Lib Dems. So far, so predictable. But predictable only to those who thought about it for 5 minutes in advance.
To around 90% of the audience tuning in, the fact that Nick Clegg was even the same size as the other two was probably the biggest surprise. Schooled on the David Steel perceptions of politics, we expected the Lib Dem leader to be about 2′ 6″.
All that said, he played his hand pretty coolly – he neatly derided the two. He avoided being cosied up to by Gordon. He struck an independent line on Trident. He could have shrivelled up, over-claimed or mis-spoken. He stood up straight and matched blow for blow.
Cameron did his dog whistle politics pretty effectively – more discipline in schools, too many immigrants, more police on the beat. As a Labour voter (hey this is honesty day!) it frankly passed me by. But the instant opinion polls showed that resonated with the undecided voters in Bolton. He clearly had his right-wing messages worked out.
But did we see a new Prime Minister in action? Did Cameron dominate in the way that you’d expect after 13 years of an allegedly discredited Labour government. No. And indeed as the putative front runner, I think Cameron is the biggest loser from this.
Did Gordon Brown come across as the worst inhuman PM in living memory? No. He smiled. He did anecdote (just about). His arguable flaws were trying to co-opt Nick into his gang, and being too pushy in testing Cameron – but as the second placed guy that is what you do.
Back inside their analysis dens, each will be saying to their leaders – you did well. Amongst the Broons there’ll be relief. In their hearts, the Cameronistas should really be reflecting on why their guy did not do better. In Cleggland they’ll be dancing in the streets of Sheffield (Hallam).
What is fascinating now is that we have two more debates to go – Sky and then BBC 1. As we saw with Reagan in 1984, there’s always a chance for a remarkable turn around.
And there’s no going back now. Every would-be PM from now on will face this same leaders’ debate in future General Elections. UK elections have changed for ever.