James Forsyth

Tonight’s tactical battle

Tonight's tactical battle
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If seven days ago, anyone had suggested that the first debate would propel Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems to the top of the polls we’d all have thought that their lunch had gone on rather too long. But that’s what happened. Tonight, the questions are whether Gordon Brown reprises his ‘I agree with Nick’ routine or tries to check Clegg’s momentum and whether Cameron can turn in the kind of performance that begins to turn things round for him.  

Cameron shouldn’t be angry tonight. But he does need to bracket Brown and Clegg together at every opportunity. When three people are debating, the person who does the best job of bracketing the other two together wins — and that’s what Clegg did brilliantly with his attacks on the ‘two old parties’ last week. This time, Cameron needs to make sure that the public see Brown and Clegg as top down, Whitehall and Brussels-knows-best politicians, and him as the alternative to that.

On the various Clegg stories, the big question seems to be whether Clegg has in any way fallen foul of the rule on National Insurance contributions on the staff member he was paying. The rules on this are complicated — if the staff member was freelance, it is not the employer’s responsibility to make sure NICs are paid — and we won’t know if there has been any breach until the Lib Dems release the full paperwork.