Analysis: Ignoring Clegg might pay off

Despite the polling upheavals of the last week, Gordon Brown and David Cameron’s determination to tackle each other fatally compromised any expected demolition of Nick Clegg during the second televised leaders’ debate.

By Alex Stevenson

As anticipated, the Liberal Democrat leader was attacked by his Conservative and Labour counterparts on his opposition to a like-for-like replacement of Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent.

Brown also laid into Clegg for being “anti-American”, while Cameron described Lib Dem proposals for a straight in-out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union as a “con”.

But these attacks aside, and despite the essential and unprecedented parity between the three parties in recent polls, the prime minister and leader of the opposition focused on undermining each other’s policies rather than confronting the growing Lib Dem threat.

Cameron said Labour was trying to “frighten you” into backing the Conservatives. Brown said the recovery was “put at risk by Conservative policies”.

Both men may have been justified in refusing to change their overall approach, despite the apparently campaign-changing developments of the last week.

While Cameron’s best section was his “very, very angry” outburst against Labour “lies” over alleged Tory plans to cut measures helping elderly people, the prime minister was at his most prime ministerial when he unconsciously adopted the No 10 mindset. On Europe, for example, he blurted out: “I need to work with these other countries.”

Brown and Cameron were at their most united not in ganging up on Clegg, as many pundits had predicted, but during the section on a hung parliament.

Despite prompts from the moderator, both men emphasised the “fundamental disagreement” which existed between Labour and the Conservatives on how to deal with the deficit in the next 12 months. The issue dominated the first week of the campaign and has rumbled along, unresolved, ever since.

It was this fixation with each other’s policies that led to their biggest error. For while they used their ‘free debate’ time to target each other, Clegg was slowly accumulating a series of statements designed to quell the fears about a hung parliament raised in the last seven days.

“The world won’t end. We’ll talk to each other to provide the good government, the sound government, that you deserve,” he said.

“You deserve a government where we put your interests first and don’t allow everything, constantly, to be hijacked by political pointscoring.”

Earlier the most striking section of the debate followed a question about restoring faith in politics and politicians. Clegg, again directly addressing the British people by looking into the camera (this time copied by Cameron, but not Brown), delivered an impassioned appeal to those who appeared to be wavering in his favour. “Get stuck in!” he urged the disaffected. “It’s your country, it’s your future, assert your right to vote, to shape your own future.”

As last week, placing the Lib Dem leader on a podium next to his two main counterparts has given him a huge boost. Cameron and Brown expended so much energy attacking each other they were simply less effective in confronting Clegg, with the result he has still gained the most from tonight.

On one level, the sheer effrontery of Brown and Cameron’s decision to go for each other is breathtaking. On the other, as this morning’s headlines show, perhaps they have realised something we haven’t: intense press attention on the Lib Dems is doing a much better job of undermining Clegg than any of their efforts in tonight’s short 90-minute exchange. By that measure, all three leaders will have reason to be pleased by their performances.