Comment: The most tedious debate leaves Clegg still winning

The debates have become increasingly tedious, which is to Clegg’s advantage. Voters will just remember the first one.

By Ian Dunt

The Brown brand is irretrievably damaged. I doubt yesterday’s ridiculous media frenzy has done any damage because there was nothing left to damage. As it happens, I though Brown performed on the upper levels of his capacity in the first debate, before improving last week and then doing so again in this final debate.

He appeared confident, he concentrated on his strengths – such as distilling and attacking specific policy weaknesses – and he resisted the temptation to reel off statistics. But it didn’t make any difference. Watching the various ‘worms’ that have been on offer throughout the debates shows Brown just doesn’t get any credit for anything he says. The man talks sense sometimes and indecipherable nonsense most of the time, but it doesn’t matter. He has the same problem the Tories had under William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith: people went off their policies when they found out they were Conservative. Similarly, people go off Brown’s statements when they realise he’s saying them.

Voters have already made their mind up, and realistically that probably happened two years ago.

Clegg needed to pull something special out the bag today and he did not quite deliver, even if he was by far the best performer. His polling drops slightly between debates, and he needed to ensure voters have fresh image of him in their minds when they go to the polls next week. I doubt today was enough to do that. The people who express their support for the Lib Dems in recent polls are also the people least likely to vote. After all, going down to the polling both is more time consuming than taking a call from a pollster. Clegg needed to give those flirting with him an extra kick, to outsource his momentum to them by making them feel they are part of a movement.

Clegg was confident, well briefed and suitably populist, but he did not quite have that edge to him he would need to really prompt something revolutionary next Thursday. He did do well enough, however, to prompt a serious upset, although we’ll have to wait until later to see just how upsetting it is and what repercussions it has.

With Labour now beyond help and Clegg not quite reaching the upper limits of his potential, this should really be Cameron’s to win. He probably has improved enough over the last two debates to warrant a slim majority, but Cameron was much duller and weaker than most of us would have expected when we first learnt these debates were taking place. His weaknesses as a political leader are now evident. If he does in fact become prime minister we should expect a tough time for him in Downing Street. He appears to lack some of the more deft political skills we previously thought he had in spades.

Tory support is not actually much higher than it was during Howard’s time. It would be unfair to Cameron, so many years into his modernisation process, to say he is merely a fortunate beneficiary of circumstance – of Brown’s incompetence and the financial scandal. But he has not been remotely inspirational over the course of these debates.

This was actually a fairly dispiriting end to the leaders’ TV debates, which seemingly detonated onto the 2010 general election campaign three weeks ago. The debates have become more boring and unsurprising each week – a fact that plays well for Clegg. Voters only tend to remember the first event, and the relative flatness of the second two debates means these three broadcasts will go down as Clegg’s, even if his performance failed to reach a crescendo.

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