Nick Clegg did not talk down to the audience

Clegg was the surprise winner of the Question Time debate

Clegg was the surprise winner of the Question Time debate

Nick Clegg was the unlikely winner of tonight's sort-of-but-not-really TV debate. It won't make a blind bit of difference to his prospects, but for what it's worth: he performed best.

Unlike David Cameron and Ed Miliband, Clegg didn't talk down to his audience. He didn't try Miliband's excruciating 'what's your name' tactic, and didn't descend to Cameron's utterly false impersonation of what a normal person might behave like. He acted very much as one might expect him to behind closed doors. He took on the audience, sometimes really quite roughly. He wasn't all that much easier on them than he used to be with MPs at deputy prime minister's questions in the Commons. It was refreshing to see a political leader talk clearly, outline his arguments and actually debate the audience, rather than trot out slogans and evasions.

There is a simple reason why Clegg is so much more adept at handling a hostile audience: he still remembers what they look like. He faces unprecedented levels of hostility when he speaks in the Commons, is attacked constantly on TV and submits himself to the public once a week for a grilling on LBC.

Cameron and Miliband, on the other hand, have steered away from hostile audiences for so long that they are startled when they come across them. Both have spent the election hidden away from members of the public, refusing to engage in the kind of street politics which used to be the bread-and-butter of an election for a political leader.

Miliband faces hostile media questions with some regularity. There's no way he could avoid it without refusing to speak to the media altogether. He is used to being questioned by Andrew Marr and dealt well with Jeremy Paxman. But he does not do hostile audiences. His Q&As, which he generally handles well, are pretty genteel affairs.

That at least puts him a step ahead of Cameron, who avoids both hostile audiences and hostile media interviews. You could tell that much by the look of fear in his eyes when he faced Paxman the other day. Cameron likes to say that he faces scrutiny in his Cameron Direct events, but they are favoured by the Tory leader specifically because they feature such bored and therefore docile participants.

None of that today. With so little actual contact with political leaders and no real TV debates, the audience resembled a dog suddenly free of its leash.

Truth is, the audience kind of let us down during that Paxman/Burley event the other day. After the gripping drama of the Paxo interview, the questions were pretty harmless and Burley didn't manage the situation well. Today was different. They were one of the most well-informed, aggressive and yet respectful audiences we've seen for some time. They were a testament to the effectiveness of public scrutiny. If Miliband wins and fulfils his promise to institute a public PMQs, we'd be privileged for it to be composed of people such as these.

In that inferno, Clegg acquitted himself the best. The snap Guardian/ICM poll gave it to Cameron on 44%, with Miliband second on 38% and Clegg last on 19%. That appears to contradict every word written above, but it's important to note that Clegg is priced out in this election. He has lost the right to be heard. He could have made someone with spinal injuries walk and he would still have come third. But that 16% figure is still three times his usual personal rating. Whichever way we cut it, those ratings are imbued with people's impressions of the leaders going into it. They are not necessarily a fair reflection of the performance on the night.

Performance-wise, the Lib Dem leader went up there with the worst hand – and played it best. It will change nothing, but he deserves credit where it's due.