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Friday, 23 April 2010

It's not a knockout

The dust has settled on the second leader's debate. The frenetic, rather pathetic, spinning from each of the parties after the debate has died down - where each party rushed out to claim victory. Spin alley was pretty undignified the first time round. Last night it made most of the party reps look fairly foolish.

As predicted by this blog, the second debate was pretty much a draw. Some polls showed Cameron the winner. Others Clegg. But the margin of "victory" was always pretty small. Brown lagged behind by a few points, but there was no clear winner. For the second time, noone gaffed. But this debate was feistier than the first, because it mattered so hugely - more than the first debate and more than the final debate.

Brown did rather well. He came third in most of the polls but if the assessment was purely on the basis of his performance, what he said, how he came across (and in comparison with the first debate) - it was a dramatic improvement. He was on top of the policy and gave the kind of competent answers on foreign policy that you'd expect of a sitting Prime Minister. He doesn't agree with Nick anymore, but I actually thought Brown sneaked his way back into the game a little bit. The trouble is that it's too late. People have stopped listening. In reality, Brown has been knocked out of these debates. He's clearly uncomfortable with the format, struggling to look as at ease as Cameron and Clegg. He may be good on the substance, but he won't persuade in this format because he simply can't come across as fresh, new, slick and engaging in the same way that the others can. Like it or not, this is a TV contest like the X-Factor, and he has been knocked out of the debates, if not yet the election as a whole.

Clegg survived. This was a solid performance. He didn't gaffe. He was the best at engaging with the audience, at telling a convincing anecdote (as opposed to Brown's pre-rehearsed bathtime "gag" and Cameron's lame story about being left behind on his morning jog). Clegg comes across as not trying to hard. He also never lets either Cameron or Brown get away with anything, always jumping in with his rebuttal. He neatly side-stepped an out of order question from Boulton on the half-baked Telegraph story. He held his own on Trident. On Europe, Cameron failed to land a blow on the EU Treaty referendum and succeeded in highlighting Cameron's dodgy coalition of Euro loonies in Brussels. He was convincing in claiming the EU wasn't perfect, but a necessity of an inter-dependent world that the UK needs credibly to engage with.

Cameron held out for a draw, maybe sneaked a win. But the main mission for him was to win big and burst Nick Clegg's bubble. He did not manage to do that. I was amazed to see that he had been declared the winner. At times, Cameron was almost marginalised by Brown and Clegg and his eyes flickered nervously and shiftily when he was attacked. His rebuttals lacked punch. He showed the most anger when attacking Brown's leaflets - this looked petulant and self-centred. But he was much better and more commanding than last week. Cameron looked more prime ministerial. But he has not commanded the debates and constantly looks as if he is stunned and looks like the bewildered favourite that the outsiders have left behind.

So, there was no knockout punch from anyone on anyone. Two debates down, there is now solid evidence that Brown isn't any good at them, Clegg is rather good at them, and Cameron is not as good as we thought he'd be at them. The third debate is unlikely to change that.

For Cameron, he must now find a way of reining in the Lib Dems in the next two weeks. I doubt that the final debate will do that definitively. The Tories looked desperate in claiming that a Hung Parliament would lead to the IMF being called in. It's also clear the Conservative HQ are mobilising smear campaigns against Clegg in the Tory press. They need to stop that nonsense and focus on ruthlessly clarifying the Tory message over the next two weeks - spelling out in clear terms why the Conservative package, by which I mean its policies and its people (not its philosophies) deserve a cross on the ballot paper in 13 days time.

Going negative is not the way back for Cameron.

PREDICTION: HUNG PARLIAMENT - Conservatives short by 10 of overall majority

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