First things first: SKY lost. A debate that was supposed to be about foreign policy scarcely touched on many of the bigger, more interesting issues in the world. Nothing about China, Russia, Iran, Islam, Israel-Palestine, Africa, terrorism, etc etc. The ability of a British government to influence some of the issues arising in these parts of the world may be limited but it would be interesting, nevertheless, to hear what the leaders had to say about them. Instead there was europe, nuclear weapons and a brief detour into Afghanistan to allow the leaders to dust-off their favourite Afghan anecdotes (jogging! Mechanics!).
Despite that serious limitation it was another surprisingly entertaining contest and, in points terms, a much closer one than last week's. Partisans on all sides could make a non-ridiculous case that their man won. Myself? I'd have scored it Brown 81 Clegg 80 Cameron 78.
This is an obviously annoying conclusion to reach but there you have it nonetheless.. Gordon Brown was much better this week and I think he (just) won a pretty tight encounter. This reflects a strong, even at times authorative, performance from Brown and a bewildering reluctance on the part of the other debaters to call him on his bluffs, evasions, distortions and flat-out falsehoods.
Nevertheless, though Cameron came onto a game later, Brown scored effective blows on both europe and national security. This, to repeat, does not mean I agree with his analysis. Nevertheless, his "get real" mantra was punchy and effective. As the evening wore on, mind you, I thought Brown's performance dipped. Even so he was able, again, to make far too much hay from his preposterous claim that a failure to raise taxes by as much as he thinks sensible amounts to "taking money out of the economy". Every time he says this, a kitten dies somewhere. Sadly neither Clegg nor Cameron did enough to set fire to this straw man and so Gordon got away with it. (Something similar may be said of the failure to point out how Brown plundered Britain's pensions.)
As for Clegg, he was solid but not spectacular. There were moments of hesistancy and some rambling but in general I found his maner appealling: he gave the impression of listening to the questions and then thinking about his answers and did more to engage the audience - both in Bristol and at home - than either of the other candidates. He was brave on immigration too and his final line - for those still watching - was excellent: “Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be different. It can.”
So what about David Cameron? He was certainly better this week - sharper, more focused - and far from outclassed but this format does not seem to be his forte. For whatever reason he struggles to draw clear differences between his policies and Gordon Brown's. It didn't help that he was tag-teamed effectively on Europe. True, Cameron scored points on some of Labour's deceptions vis a vis campaign literature but when he's angry he actually too often just sounds peeved. And again, he struggled to articulate the better, more interesting aspects of Tory policy. The "Big Society" hasn't been boiled down to an effective 30 second gobbet.
Given this debate's smaller audience I doubt it will alter the fundamental dynamics of the race too much. But who knows? Certainly each party has no reason to regret the evening and there were few, I think, major blunders.
What it confirmed, however, is that this is still and very much still a three horse race. With one contest to go Labour still need to make up ground, the Tories remain favourites despite Cameron's lack of whelm and clegg remains a live, rogue factor.
The insta-polls disagree with me of course, splitting the decision between Cameron and Clegg and so I suppose it would be nice if they were right and I am wrong. Perhaps my perspective is too skewed from having watched and participated in hundreds of debates over the years. The chaps at Election Debates also think Brown won. Four give him the win and two plump for Clegg. Five of the six judges agree that Cameron came third. Of course, again, that's judging from a debating, not a political perspective.