Peter Hoskin

Cameron’s evening – as he and Brown fight back against the Clegg surge

Cameron's evening – as he and Brown fight back against the Clegg surge
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Well, one thing was clear: Brown and Cameron have both been at the textbooks, staying behind for extra classes, and learning the lessons of last week.  They came into this TV debate prepared.  Not just for the very fact of Nick Clegg, but with strategies and soundbites to slow his advance.  The result was a more passionate and confrontational show than I expected.

Brown was the biggest surprise on the night.  Sure, you have to apply the usual caveats and parameters: he is Gordon Brown, and being disingenuous and deluded is what he does.  But, all that considered, he was uncharacteristically sprightly, I thought.  His little prepared quips were half-way memorable, he was convincing on the issue of our presence in Afghanistan, and he even managed to score some hits on Clegg.  "I agree with Nick" has clearly been shoved out of the window at Number Ten.

This isn't to say that Brown won the debate though.  I reckon Cameron can claim that prize.  The Tory leader gave something like the performance we all expected from him last week, aided by the fact that he's on the public's side over issues like Europe.  At times, it was like he was working through the check list of TV debate best practice.  Look at the camera, check.  Set out your positive agenda, check.  Have a sincere-and-angry moment that will be repeated in the broadcasts later, check.  And so on.  I expect Tory HQ will be especially pleased with Cameron's confident and clear lines on the economy and the Tories' national insurance cut.  Don't believe the naysayers: this is a vote winner.

As for Clegg, well, it was mixed stuff.  He seemed energised whenever he could move the debate onto the failings of the "old parties".  But there were times when he wilted under the pressure from the two oldies beside him, and times when there was just a lack of zip – on immigration, on the enviroment, and on the economy.  I'm sure the Lib Dems strategists will be pleased with how he detoxified certain issues, such as Europe, though.

So, there you have it.  Cameron out in front – ahead of Clegg and Brown, who were about equal with each other.  But that, don't forget, is the opinion of one particular Westminster Villager.  What matters is how it played with the public – and most of us have long since given up trying to judge that.

The Tories have released this poster, attacking Brown over those misleading Labour leaflets: