Comment: No game-changing moments in final leaders’ debate

Going into this debate, the narrative was set, and the stakes were clear.

By Azeem Ibrahim

Gordon Brown was facing poll numbers which predicted a Labour wipeout the likes of which we haven’t seen for decades: the lowest share of the vote the party had managed for years. David Cameron was facing poll numbers which predicted the embarrassment of having his consistent poll lead of the last few years blown out from under him three weeks from the election – this was his last big chance to turn that around. And Nick Clegg was facing the prospect of the surge of two weeks ago wearing off as the novelty and shine wore off him for many voters, making all the hype seem so much polling froth.

Nick Clegg, it seemed, had a canny strategy. He talked the benefits of bipartisanship, and about politicians and financial leaders coming together to talk about what needed to be done on cuts. By doing so, he was implicitly painting a hung parliament as a good thing, and thus neutralising the, particularly Tory, accusation that a hung parliament would lead to paralysis, be a disaster for Britain, and so on. I got the impression that he was trying to encourage people to see their vote for the Liberal Democrats as a vote to give them leverage over the resulting discussion, thus also neutralising the attack that it a voting yellow would not make any real difference to the resulting policies.

He made a few plays for disaffected ‘Old Labour’ voters, by linking the decline of manufacturing with the bank bailouts, mentioning the loan to Kraft which preceded their announcement of job cuts, and asking why we as a country were not investing more in dockyards and shipyards, traditional Labour heartland votes. He also paced his answers rather well, allowing space for each of his points to sink in before moving onto the next.

It was good to hear housing come up in these debates, something which is of immense importance to many people but is rarely brought front and centre in the election. Clegg said he wanted to make use of empty properties, and, in perhaps another nod to disaffected Labour voters, talked of a role for council houses, even though “I know it’s not fashionable these days”. He talked with real passion about social mobility and underperformance due to poverty, which contrasted particularly well with Gordon Brown’s unfortunate habit of beginning his answer to the same question by intoning drily that on it, he too felt passion.

Brown mentioned ‘Bigotgate’ almost straight out of the traps, saying that his job was difficult and sometimes he wasn’t good at all of it, “as you saw yesterday”. This was canny, too, not only framing the issue his way before the others could mention it, but also trying to contrast it with the mental heavy-lifting aspect of the job. The other leaders seemed to have decided not to mention Brown’s unfortunate comment. When a questioner asked about whether politicians knew they had become so removed from those they represent, particularly on immigration – effectively some meat dangled by the BBC in front of Cameron and Clegg to encourage them to pounce on Brown’s dismissal of the issue the day before – both declined to go personal. In my view, it would have damaged either of them to have done so and have the other demur, so they made the right decision.

Brown still suffers from an unfortunate inability to be simple and direct in answering questions, though. In answer to a question about Britain’s manufacturing base he referred to the new arbiter set up by Labour for businesses to complain to when they had been turned down for a loan; in answer to a man who found it galling that people were on benefits who could work he began his answer with reference to pensioner benefits and the winter fuel allowance just because the man was soon to retire, and in answer to a woman who was finding it hard to save for a mortgage, he brought up low interest rates, ignoring that they are at historic lows at the moment and right now is when she is having the problem.

Voters know David Cameron by now. I doubt anything they saw last night will change their opinion of him. He produced no ‘silver bullet’ likely to alter perceptions of him. His trend in the polls – ahead on share of the vote but not by enough to win an outright majority – will likely hold on polling day now.

He got into a scrap with Nick Clegg on immigration, refusing to acknowledge that his proposal to cap the number of immigrants coming into the country would not affect EU migrants – who make up 80% of immigrants anyway. Instead he tried to turn inquisitor, asking Nick Clegg about his proposal for an amnesty on migrants. He repeatedly failed to engage directly with the others’ accusations, changing the subject to the euro when outright accused by Brown of using corporation tax to help banks, for example. He also wrongly said that it was Liberal Democrat policy to join the euro. He repeated the bizarre claim on Conservative posters that he would link receiving benefits to taking a job, something which has been government policy for the last decade or so. He will have cheered traditionalists by mention of the need to improve discipline in schools, without, of course, explaining how a Tory government would achieve that.

This was a scrappier, livelier debate than the previous two, and all three men had raised their game from last time. I expect the polls to show no clear winner, but Cameron and Clegg again ahead of Brown. But there was, I believe, no game-changing moment, and we are likely to head towards May 6th with the polls in a roughly similar position to last week.

Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.

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