Comment: Clegg gets the job done

The Lib Dem leader may not have set Bristol on fire, but he will have done enough to achieve his objective: maintaining momentum.

By Ian Dunt

There were sections of this week’s debate when Nick Clegg was very flat. He failed to set off big fireworks, and many of his answers were instantly forgettable. Anyone expecting him to emerge like some Messiah will have been disappointed. He certainly wasn’t Obama or Churchill, as some of the more excitable elements of the media have recently dubbed him. But he didn’t need to be.

We have no experience of TV debates in this country, so there’s no history to assess when it comes to the events of this general election. We’re forced to look to other countries, notably the US. We could look at any number of countries, of course, such as Mongolia or Iraq; most had these debates well before we finally succumbed to them. But America has perfected the art of this particular style of theatre, so it’s the wisest place to start.

It teaches us something important: the first debate is the one that counts. The impossibly famous Nixon/JFK debate, the Gone With The Wind of political TV events, was the first of three. No-one remembers the other two.

If that’s the case here too, and there’s no reason to think Britain would be different in this regard, then Clegg’s sole purpose was to not drop a clanger. He made no big mistakes tonight, and he maintained a genuine, principled look which should continue to chime well with voters.

He shined through during three key moments, the third far more subtle and important than the others.

Firstly, his comments on a hung parliament managed to neutralise the Tory attack on the subject: that it would result in parties bickering behind closed doors, by selling it as a glorious democratic upheaval. In his second important moment, the closing statement, he adopted an Obama-like demand for change. He aimed to make his new-found supporters feel as if they were part of a movement. That’s essential if he is to turn a blip into something more substantial. The tidal wave of Lib Dem support must be given its own self-propelling momentum or it will die. If those engulfed in it feel the hand of history on their shoulder, they will work harder than if they were being given a salary.

But Clegg’s third moment showed his political skills at their best. He was forced into a protracted debate on his policy of an amnesty for illegal immigrants who have been in the country ten years by a joint Labour/Conservative attack. He knows it will not be popular and it is ripe for tabloid attack. But Clegg managed to frame it in tough, Daily Mail rhetoric, demanding those included in the amnesty be made to pay tax, speak English and do community service to apologise for their illegal entry. It’s not easy to couch a policy in the terms of its opposition, and Clegg did it very effectively. On this issue and Europe, he avoided a potentially devastating stumble.

Brown was worse than last week, although snap polls seemed to show an improved reception. He looked around the audience endlessly, which gave a shifty and manic impression. Although these things often come down to personal impression I found Clegg’s camera-gazing somewhat violating last week, but few people seemed to agree with me.

Cameron was much, much better, hugely improving on his previous performance. Was it enough to overturn Clegg’s ongoing narrative? No, but it will have saved him from potentially ruinous headlines tomorrow. One of those early snap polls YouGov for the Sun showed he won, although the other gave it to Clegg again. Expect the same papers which attacked him on the morning of the debate to highlight the YouGov poll extensively.

Despite that, and the enduring hostility towards him from important parts of the media and the political establishment, Clegg should be able to maintain his performance with tonight’s debate, and possibly even improve on it. Many of us pundits would secretly like nothing better, regardless of our politics. It’s turned this election into something genuinely exciting and dramatic.

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