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Friday, April 16, 2010 

The obligatory debate post.

It's fairly typical that just a day after I attack Nick Clegg for not being able to strike the right tone or have the gravitas which his role requires that he turns in such an assured, rounded and really rather impressive performance just when it really did matter. Admittedly, it doesn't take much to be able to come off as the brilliant outsider when you're standing alongside the jowls of Brown and the shiny head of Cameron, but it wasn't just his success in casting himself as different to the other two that has led to him being declared the undisputed winner of the debate, it was also that he came across, whisper it, as genuine. As Alix Mortimer has already identified, this was most clear when he actually bothered to answer Joel Weiner's (aka the Jewish lad who was also on Question Time when Nick Griffin made his appearance, and who now has approaching 7,000 fans on Lamebook) question about how school students were being tested too much and not taught enough, while Cameron and Brown just took the opportunity to bleat on about their schools policy.

As has been repeated ad nauseam, it's true that Clegg was always going to be the big winner: being an equal alongside the two main leaders in such a setting gave him the most exposure a leader of his party has been given since the revelations of Charles Kennedy's drink habit and Paddy Ashdown's affair with his secretary. He could however have still just been seen as the also-ran, given a welcome into the big boy's club just to be shown up. Instead, while you wouldn't exactly say he either humiliated or gave Brown and Cameron a kicking, he came across as the relaxed alternative with policies to back him up. He said beforehand that he was just going to try to enjoy it, and that seemed the best way by far to approach it.

Cameron, by comparison, looked close at times to being sick. The reaction of both the Tories and ex-Tories is also instructive: Michael Portillo on This Week having an outbreak of sour grapes at how Clegg being invited along at all, Michael Gove today banging on about "eccentric" Liberal Democrat policies. Clegg at least made reference throughout to his party's policies; Cameron, having launched a manifesto which had by far the biggest actual innovative political idea of any of the main parties seemed to have abandoned the "Big Society" as soon as it had been launched. Throughout he instead he settled on being the biggest populist of the three, referring to possibly mythical "commoners" who he'd encountered on his journeys around the nation who supported him. It was however his closing statement which really stuck out as being completely lacking in anything even approaching substance, expressing the vacuity that voters should choose "hope over fear". For someone who has been so keen to market himself as the heir to Blair, he looked and spoke throughout as closer to Major than our own past Great Leader. Some will undoubtedly prefer the homely demeanour rather than the extravagance and mendacity of Blair, yet it was almost as if he'd forgotten everything which he'd undoubtedly practised beforehand.

Brown, more simply, was Brown. He did little more throughout than how he's approached PMQ's, but he did so with a magnanimity which has been undetectable in those sessions, and at times even looked as if he was enjoying it as much as Clegg, making one of the few jokes and smiling and laughing without coming across as he did in that infamous YouTube video. More pertinently, while Cameron has often had Brown rattled and angry when they've faced off across the dispatch box, much to the delight of the Tory mob behind Cameron while Labour MPs have sat in surly near silence, here he failed to let anything rile him and often came out on top on the substance front. One suspects that if Brown had been the insurgent rather than the incumbent his scores afterwards would have been far ahead of Cameron's, and that it was only the general dislike for him, both justified and unjustified, as well as how many have just switched off whenever he speaks that either put him equal with Cameron or slightly behind.

More depressing was the politics espoused: starting off with a question on immigration, only Clegg saying that we needed some, even if he put it in the awful Brass Eye like fashion of there being good and bad immigration, the contempt showed by Cameron for the Lib Dem policy of limiting prison sentences of 6 months or less, and the tendency, especially of Cameron, to focus on the irrelevant, shallow or relatively frivolous instead of actual detail. 90 minutes was also far too long, and the secondary responses could have bit cut down to fit in more questions, or even, horror of horrors, some further audience participation rather than simply posing the questions. Besides all this, it was clearly an unqualified success: it may have just been because of the novelty, but an audience of 9.6 million for anything to do with politics, and that's not counting those who have watched it online today, is well worth celebrating. If it does also lead to a fully justified increase in the Liberal Democrat share of the vote, Clegg will have even more to thank the other parties for.

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