Alex Massie

Clegg Wins, Brown Survives and Cameron Misses

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So who won? For the first half-hour at least that wasn't in doubt: the Daily Mail vanquished all opponents.

On immigration and crime all three men tried to out-populist one another. Who knew that foreign students were such a threat to this green and pleasant land? Who knew that foreign chefs could possibly be such a danger? When Nick Clegg recounted an anecdote about how a poor chap had been burgled while at his father's funeral one half-expected him to add that, "And by the way, the father was murdered by a cleaver-wielding Vietnamese chef..."

True, David Cameron was right to stress the importance of rehabilitation and, later, of welfare reform. But these were small nuggets of decency and common-sense in a swamp of hysteria and lie-telling populism that was enough to make one think that my three-year old niece's analysis was depressingly accurate.

Things did, mercifully, get a little better thereafter and there was more give and take and general spikiness than seemed likely given the absurdly stringent nature of the "rules". It was both more interesting and even more exasperating than one expected.

Nick Clegg clearly won and not just on the basis of the Expectations Game either. He was personable, effective and pretty good at putting across his entirely reasonable "Plague on Both Your Houses" stance.

On the plus side for David Cameron his opening statement was the sharpest, clearest and best, noting and appreciating the public's mood. His closing statement was fine too but for long periods of the contest Cameron seemed oddly passive and, at times, strangely shut out of the contest. My impression was that he was the most nervous of the participants but, of course, I may be mistaken.

More culpably, time and time again Cameron declined to call Brown out. Perhaps he didn't want to seem angry or aggressive but it was absurd for him to fail to challenge Brown's repeated assertions that raising taxes by £6bn fewer pounds somehow constitutes "taking money out of the economy". If it's not paid in tax then does this money simply evaporate? Cameron never made this argument. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher would have. Instead Dave became bogged down in tedious details about waste and 1% of government revenue. A real missed opportunity.

And that's rather how I feel the whole night was for Cameron. He could have slain Brown tonight but he did not. The result of that failure was to let Brown escape.

On Afghanistan, for instance, Brown was able to bring a degree of the gravitas that befits his office to bear and I thought he had the better of those exchanges even though his record suggests that should not have been possible. But again Cameron declined to attack. He didn't even point out, when the discussion came to helicopters, that the Americans have 13 helicopters per 1,000 troops in Afghanistan and we have 3. This is a figure given a whole page in the Tory manifesto and, if used, would have swung this part of the debate in Cameron's favour. So why didn't he use it?

One could go on. So one shall. Brown suggested, preposterously, that the Tories would gut the policing budget. Cameron's response? We'll cut waste and put Bobbies back on the beat. Well, fine, but why not attack Brown's premises and then pivot to how absurd and disengenuous the Prime Minister is being?

This was true of the education segment too where, though Cameron did fine, he also missed a Van Vossen type of open goal. At one point Gordon said there would be "No" under-performing schools in Britain next year. Seriously, that's what he said. Record Tractor Production! Cameron declined to challenge Brown on this. Too much Bullingdon Club, Dave, not enough Oxford Union.*

Given the circumstances and given his predicament and given how much nonsense he spoke Gordon did about as well as even Blairites could have feared. But Blair would have wiped the floor with all three of these chaps and it was, from a Tory perspective, disappointing that Cameron didn't do better.

Yes, he was right to talk about outputs rather than inputs but did any of this "cut through"? I'm not sure it did. And it should have done given the ripeness of the material with which he had to work.

It's not fatal for Dave by any means but I'm not sure I really agree with Pete and Fraser about this debate. It was a missed opportunity: Cameron could have driven a stake through Gordon's black, bleak, mendacious heart tonight and he did not. So he lost and Gordon won even if Nicky was the bigger winner....

Clegg won and deservedly so; for the other two it probably won't have altered things too much. One trusts, right?

*I'm duty-bound to say that the Oxford Union is over-rated but that's a different matter and one for another day. And for reasonably impartial analysis from people who judge real debates for a living see the boys at Election Debates.

PS: Depressing fact of the night - apart from a brief Clegg mention of ID Cards, civil liberties weren't mentioned at all in a debate on domestic policy.

UPDATE: For a fun and self-confessed "uninformed" American view on this whole happy farrago check out Foreign Policy's Joshua Keating and his take. He thought Cameron won on points which makes me wonder, with no disrespect to JK, if non-obsessive British viewers saw it the same way... Possibly! Or not! His piece is good fun anyway and worth your time as an outsider's take.

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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