Would Cleggmania continue to ride rampant over what he would persistently call the “old parties”, or would his bubble burst as the electorate woke up from a seven-day bender wondering what the hell they ever saw in him? In practice, neither. This was closer to being the difficult second album which can’t have the wow factor of the first but certainly isn’t a flop.
Overall this was therefore more of a score-draw – with Clegg unable to sustain the hysteria of Leaders 1, Cameron getting more to grips with the format, and Gordon Brown hanging on in there. And that in itself is a mark of how much seismic change these debates have delivered for UK politics.
The fact that we can see it as a pretty normal outcome to have all the parties sitting on around 30%+ is remarkable. If this sustains through to 6 May this will be something that has seriously not happened in our lifetimes (assuming you don’t count the weird Labour suicide-note politics of 1983). You see even I am getting carried away.
Clegg being stationed in the middle this time round often got squeezed and picked on, and from time to time got sucked in to the old adversarial politics (or politics as you and I would call it) which he successfully derided last time. It’s hard to be an outsider when you’re front and centre.
Cameron by contrast benefited from being able to stand off to one side and distance himself, seeking to peg the other two together. Indeed they all tried this, with Gordon’s slightly naff pre-prep line of “you’re like my two boys squabbling at bathtime”. While that neatly re-cast the youth of both opponents as inexperience, it conjured up a pretty weird image of a large paternalistic Gordon looming over a naked Nick and Dave in the bath. At least it did for me.
We also saw how they had tried to learn from last time: should we address the audience or address the camera? Opting to try both, Cameron made this come off as creepy, with a slow turn to stare into the lens like a scary balloon faced clown.
Naturally there was no replay of the “I agree with Nick” – although Cameron tried a jokey “I agree with Gordon” for unknown reasons. There was of course more overt attack on Clegg – but let’s recall, 8 days ago, Brown and Cameron would have been expecting by now simply to dismiss him as an irrelevance.
They all backed off from the policy argument by anecdote – no-one mentioned nurses in Runcorn, or policemen in Halifax, although Cameron mistakenly slipped back with “I went jogging this morning with a soldier just back from Afghanistan”.
I also fancied I saw the hand of the party pressurisers, as we saw audience reaction shots of nodding heads and another of a stern row of three fabulously glowering women.
This was Sky-fronted and therefore had more glitz than ITV. The most mesmerizing was their OTT exploding external projected graphics on the outside of the Arnolfini in Bristol. I was also distracted by the fractured flag set which gave strikingly different backdrops to each leader, although to what effect it’s hard to say. Adam Boulton looked extremely pleased with himself – for no apparent reason.
The post-event spinning was even more frantic than last time, as each point-man saw the chance to extract leverage with there being no immediately obvious victor. David Miliband was the most fabulously on-message – I heard him on Sky, BBC news, Radio 4 and 5 live say the same thing four times running without missing a beat. He remains my tip for succeeding a deflated GB in a post-Election rapid putsch.
So for the future, we have one more debate to go.
What tonight’s tells us is that the Clegg effect has got serious legs. Cameron probably can’t make that 40% break through. And Brown hasn’t lost it entirely.
A hung parliament remains odds on. And, lest we forget, it’s the TV debates wot did it.
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