Alex Massie

At last! Cameron Wins

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This was hardly a vintage debate even if it is increasingly clear that these men have little regard for one another and that both Cameron and, especially, Brown are irritated by Nick Clegg's stickability.

This was actually Clegg's weakest performance. After a good start and the best of the opening statements, Clegg's performance was less focused, less detailed, less persuasive any time he moved away from the Lib Dems' flagship proposal to raise the income tax threshold to £10,000. That may not matter much since this policy has the great advantage of being popular and easy to understand. Elsewhere, Clegg retreated to a cheap populism on bankers bonuses and the like that didn't persuade me of his seriousness even if I suspect it probably pleased many viewers. On the other hand he scored well when pointing out the madness of a tax credit system that hands money to the wealthy. It's a shame, mind you, that he didn't point out that his policy on illegal immigrants is more or less the same as Ronald Reagan's. Then again, that might lose him support in a British election...

If Clegg was weaker this week Cameron was stronger. This was, by some distance, his best performance and he did enough to finish the winner on my scorecard. This had less to do with his advocacy of Conservative policies - by now we all know what their plans are - but because, at last, he offered an effective rebuttal to Gordon Brown's near-endless supply of half-truths, absurdities and outright falsehoods.

Just as well, since if Gordon had been able to get away with his "cutting taxes takes money out of the economy" line one more time the frustration would have been too much to bear and god knows what might have happened. Happily it was at last pointed out that this is nonsense and not before time, either. Then there was Brown's bewildering claim that cutting corporation tax means "taking money away from manufacturing industry." I confess I have no idea what that means or how he can think this but since he said it more than once I assume it's what he really does believe. Which is troubling. Anyway, Cameron was right to point out that, contrary to Brown's insinuation, he wasn't proposing tax cuts for banks alone. Everyone would benefit.

But this was typical of Brown's performance. Lost in a blizzard of his own statistics, I'm not sure I've ever seen such a negative performance from a major political figure in any debate. Ever. One struggle to recall a single positive thing Brown aid or a single moment in which he talked about his plans for the future. Instead it was a scaremongering performance designed to put the fear of god into anyone rash enough to contemplate endorsing either the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats. His closing statement was typical: risk, fear, risk, fear, risk, fear and not a single positive reason to vote Labour. It's as though Labour has given up and retreated to a strategy of playing only to its base as a means of trying to motivate the hardcore to make it to the polls next week.

Perhaps one can admire the Great Clunking Fist's resilience but that's about it given his cavalier disregard for the truth and his quite shocking claim that "I do know how to run the economy in good times and bad". The sad thing is that the poor man probably believes this.

So, Cameron's best performance, Clegg's weakest and Brown's, well, oddest. If I were scoring it in debating terms I think I'd go for Cameron 80 Clegg 76 Brown 74.

PS: For an American take on matters see James Fallows at the Atlantic and Hendrik Hertzberg at the New Yorker. Rather to my surprise, they seem quite impressed by the standard of these debates. Also, as usual, I recommend the views of the panel at Election Debates even if one judge, bafflingly in my view, has scored the contest in Brown's favour;

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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