Alex Massie

Face it folks, Cameron Was Third in a Three Horse Race

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How do you know that Cameron lost the debate last night? Well, normally sensible people such as Iain Dale start making excuses for his poor performance and arguing that losing was actually part of a cunning plot to win. Seriously:

There were several moments last night when David Cameron could have gone in for the kill on Gordon Brown. But he didn't. You could almost sense him wanting to pin the PM down an pummel him on the lack of equipment to the military. But he didn't. He wanted to eviscerate him on the deficit. But he didn't. Why?

It must have been a predetermined strategy based on the fact that people tend not to like it when Cameron becomes aggressive. The dial tests show it. So instead, he adopted a strategy of appearing Prime Ministerial and not sinking to the depths of debating point scoring. He left that the Brown, and a fat lot of good it did him. In that sense, the Conservative strategy could be said to have worked.

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Now it's just one debate, even if it was one watched by nearly ten million people, and it won't decide the election. But Cameron repeatedly confused anecdote with data, missed obvious point-scoring opportunities and, most bafflingly of all, didn't even try to sell the better, more interesting parts of the Tory agenda. Where were localism, decentralisation and "empowement" last night? Nowhere.

Talking about paper clip budgets and all that is fine but I suspect that many voters take this stuff with great dollops of salt: it's what everyone always says, isn't it? And so why should anyone believe them this time? It just doesn't sound terribly convincing.

And, of course, as one has always feared the Tory promise to protect the NHS budget - wrong when made and still wrong today - came back to bite Cameron. If you will protect the HNS budget, thundered Broon, that means you'll cut money fr schools and policing won't you? Eventually Dave kind of conceded that this was true. The stupidity of the NHS pledge is that is leaves the Tories open to attack on other fronts while simultaneously undermining their claims to fiscal seriousness.

Nevermind that Labour will have to make painful budget cuts too, the NHS pledge puts Cameron, not Brown, on the back-foot.

So what happens next? There's a strategic dilemma for Cameron: if polls suggest the Lib Dems are surging (an extraordinary concept I agree) then does he go after Clegg next week or does he concentrate on Brown? There'll be some temptation to opt for the former but I suspect that going after Gordon remains the better strategy. The real Lib Dem poll bounce will be smaller than the immediate post-debate insta-polls might suggest. Gordon remains alive and someone - that is, Dave - needs to set about him...

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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