Judge: Colm Flynn
Winner: Nick Clegg
Score: Clegg 75 | Cameron 74 | Brown 73
Overall a poor debate with a lack of real economic analysis from any speaker. Clegg wins because while he flopped on the banks his arguments on taxation fairness, openness about necessary cuts, realism on immigration and housing seemed more honest. Cameron comes a poor second because he landed more blows on a tired looking Brown.
Perhaps that summary is a harsh verdict but I was really disappointed with the depth of economic analysis by all the candidates. Everyone knows that the biggest challenge facing the next Prime Minister will be the economy. The opening statements saw Cameron and Clegg broadly mention the challenges ahead and some of their policies. A drained looking Brown, strangely, hung much on his record claiming that it would be worse if it was not for his actions and he had the experience to get the country out of recession. From that I actually felt perhaps we would get a good debate with the challenges, policies and, crucially, the mistakes and successes of the incumbent all on the table for debate. The very first question asked them to be honest on the cuts they will have to introduce yet we didn’t get any real honesty of what the cuts will be and that kind of summed up the disappointing element of the whole debate.
Throughout the first half of the debate both Cameron and Brown attacked each other’s policies without really developing their own and avoided Clegg in the middle who at least was honest in saying that it would take more than efficiency to fill the black hole. Clegg’s easy to understand arguments of no tax on the first £10,000, closing loopholes and general fairness will resonate with a lot of voters. On banking we saw a worrying collapse in Clegg. He looked significantly out of his depth on this issue initially thinking that reforming bankers bonuses was the main solution to the banking crisis. I think the key issues that will polarise people on Clegg will be the Euro, the immigration amnesty and the provision of housing. Many people won’t like the idea of an amnesty or of building more council houses. However you have to credit Clegg for putting these hard choices out there and admitting that they may not be perfect but that’s the reality of the situation. Throughout the debate he didn’t look as free flowing and confident as he had in earlier debates. However he was putting policies out to be challenged and that was more than his two rivals did.
As mentioned earlier Cameron and Brown both spent more time in the first half of the debate attacking each other than we had in previous debates. However the attacks did not result in a robust defence as we saw when Clegg was challenged. I thought Cameron did particularly well on the banking section where he hit Labour’s record on the banks with the example of “Fred the shred” and then turned his attention to Clegg’s support for the euro. When challenged to be honest on cuts I don’t think he was honest in saying that pay freezes, raising the retirement age and 1% in efficiencies (“1 in every 100 pounds”) would be sufficient. His lines on the Euro, immigration, housing, school discipline etc will have appealed to the traditional conservative base. Stylistically this was also his best performance. He was more aggressive and confident than in the previous three debates. He took second but I would have liked more honesty on his solutions to the economic challenges.
Brown looked tired from the very beginning. I just didn’t find Brown’s arguments of no cuts for the rest of 2010 and then unspecified cuts but not in health schools or policing convincing. He did seem to have a greater depth of knowledge to pull from when in trouble but unlike last week when this often gave him the edge over the others this week it really only kept him in contact. Cameron challenged Brown’s record throughout the debate and other than the banking section where he defended his actions he generally responded by counter attacking Cameron’s policies. But this made him look more embattled than prime-ministerial. Throughout the debate he looked weary and a shadow of the man we saw last week.
Therefore on balance I call it Clegg, Cameron and Brown in that order. I didn’t like the debate and felt disappointed that they avoided the big economic challenges. No one really convinced me that I would want them as my prime minister and that is reflected in my low speaker points.