Winner: Gordon Brown
Scores: Brown 83 | Clegg 80 | Cameron 75
Gordon Brown won this debate with a stronger start and plenty of momentum in the first half of the debate. Nick Clegg was less assured early but better later in the debate, ending strongly. David Cameron articulate the key differences between a Conservative and Labour Government, resorting to rhetoric, vague language and amorphous concepts time and time again.
The debate started well for all speakers: The “I’m your man” opening from Brown from was strong and clear. Nick Clegg took the upbeat route, signalling the Britain could be a force for good in the world. David Cameron started more decisively in term of manner and named some key differences between the parties (though many of them seemed to be ideologies rather than specific policies).
The first part of the debate was on foreign policy, and Brown excelled. Cameron and Clegg both had mixed messages on the EU, Cameron by virtue of a divided Conservative heartland, and Clegg courtesy of a bizarre chocolate reference that seemed to be a counter-point to his own argument. Brown was clear about the EU’s benefits, and provided specific evidence that linked back to his overall themes of sound economic management and jobs security. The referendums aspect of the discussion went nowhere.
There was not a lot of disagreement on Afghanistan, but Brown did a better job of linking that particular situation to the broader war on terror. He missed a good opportunity to draw into the debate more international challenges such as Middle East and China relations. He could have made the most of his experience, and portrayed the others as inexperienced. It might have been more credible that his rhetorical accusations of Clegg being anti-American.
Many issues proved to be inconclusive in the debate. Speakers traded assertions on issues such as pensions, nuclear deterrents, defence spending and immigration. Many of these arguments highlighted one truth: that a 60-second response format is deeply flawed for its failure to accommodate complex issues. We were treated to unsubstantiated rhetoric and a continuous stream of assertions for large parts of the debate.
On some of these inconclusive issues Clegg was able to stand out, simply because he had a different position. That worked to his advantage as he spoke about amnesties and political integrity. But he did look vulnerable on international relations. He had no clear points of difference other than the nuclear deterrent; the Brown-Cameron joint attack was united and strong. He was passive for the first part of the debate; much better later.
Cameron was just too vague in terms of substance. His focus on change is a message that plays equally well if not better for the Liberal-Democrat. So it’s not enough. At the start of the debate I thought he was going to pursue a “pr0-families” line through the debate. It’s a line that’s worked well in Australian and New Zealand leaders’ debates. But he dropped it too quickly. He needs an overall message, some strong themes and policies to bolster those themes.
Time and time again he resorted to nothing statements. On immigration he called for a cap but couldn’t provide guidance on what it might be, instead suggesting that we should proceed “sensitively” and be “reasonable”. On the EU, he wants to be “in Europe but not run by Europe” and wants to cut some of the bureaucracy that drives business mad. Like what? He would do what Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy have done. Like what? The high point of his debate was when he challenged Brown on misleading Labour leaflets, but even then he didn’t persist and embarrass Brown.
To Cameron’s credit, he was far more determined in his manner, displaying a conviction which was lacking in the first leaders’ debate.
All speakers closed reasonably well: Clegg focused on difference, Brown on leadership and Cameron on change. Brown could have closed better but using some of the same enlivening words from the start of the debate. Ultimately, it was that start, and his strength on EU and international issues that carried the debate.