2010 UK Election, Neill Harvey-Smith, View by election

Harvey-Smith: Clegg wins second UK leaders’ debate

Judge: Neill Harvey-Smith

Winner: Nick Clegg

Scores: Brown 80 | Cameron 76 | Clegg 82

Nick Clegg gave a strong and assured performance, handling the expected attacks from other leaders very well and arguing with clarity and optimism.

David Cameron was more fluent than last week and stronger stylistically. But he managed to sound like a man apart from the debate. Depending on your view, he either transcended the debate brilliantly – or – he looked like the third-party candidate rather than the Prime Minister in waiting.

As this is a debate adjudication, I am forced to criticise him for failure to engage. Apart from a one-off show of anger over the contents of campaign leaflets, he took the path of calmness and moderation – on defence, immigration, and the EU – to the point of ignoring others’ contributions. He engaged less than the other two candidates. He did not defend his position directly when attacked, which left uncertainty around his positions – for example, on leaving the EPP – and avoided attacking the government when the opportunity arose – for example, on pensions. Cameron used greater nuance of tone, a bit of humour and more subtle use of illustrative anecdotes than last week.

The focus of disagreement was between Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown. On Trident, it was Brown who repeatedly attacked Clegg as “a risk to security”, to “get real” and for rejecting nuclear power. Nick Clegg challenged the Prime Minister more strongly and immediately than David Cameron did when attacked, memorably on immigration “you don’t even know where they are”. Most of the time, they appeared to be the incumbent and challenger.

Gordon Brown was much improved, making his arguments with great clarity and challenging the other two leaders to defend their positions. Despite the troubling lack of control over his smile, he was presentationally strong in his use of language. Again, he was able to position himself as just one of three leaders with his own programme to put to the country, rather than a man defending a 13-year record. That helped him strategically. But his joke was weak, he was forced to say he didn’t authorise his own election leaflets and his efforts to persuade people to fear the other parties were of limited impact.

Nick Clegg used clear, simple language, had a strong and forceful manner without deviating with his plan to address questioners and the camera directly. He argued difficult policies well, for example, enlisting generals in favour of his Trident policy, and managed to remain reasonable and logical without weakening his positions. He sounded passionate about issues like pensioner poverty and retained an eye for pulling the debate out of cul-de-sacs, pulling the question on dignity in old age back to the questioner when Cameron and Brown sparred over leaflets.

It was a much better debate, both in content and style, and the speaker marks reflect that improvement. All the speakers performed more impressively than first time around.

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