2010 UK Election, Neill Harvey-Smith

Harvey-Smith: Cameron wins third UK leaders’ debate

Neill Harvey-Smith

Winner: David Cameron

Scores: Cameron 85 |Clegg 80 | Brown 77

David Cameron gave a brilliant performance in the final debate. He achieved three things simultaneously. He seemed Prime Ministerial – strong, positive and composed; he put Nick Clegg under real pressure over his policies on the Euro, immigration and VAT; he also held Gordon Brown responsible for his record and effectively exposed his scaremongering tactics.

Gordon Brown looked desperate and Cameron called him on it. The constant refrain of “same old Conservative Party” seemed tired and his message – that other parties are too big a risk – wasn’t strongly substantiated. What terrible changes would we see under Conservative or Liberal plans? Child tax credit being taken away from people on high incomes did not sound like a big risk to the future of the country, yet it was the sting of his charge, time and again. Inheritance tax cuts were presented as the calling card of Conservatism, which may shore up the core vote but again didn’t seem substantial enough to risk recovery. In terms of manner, Brown was the strongest he has been, combining a firm speaking style with the avoidance of those rather terrifying smiles which popped out last week – until the very final moment.

Nick Clegg held his own under the first sustained pressure of the campaign. He was forced to defend his policies in a range of areas – and did it rather well, for example, laying out his amnesty plan in populist terms despite the substance being unfashionable and his disowning the label “amnesty”. Once again, he was effective at returning to questioners and seeking to answer the question directly. On the economy, he got his message across about making the system “fairer”. Clegg continued to talk about the old parties and continued his outsider theme. His initial and final statements relied heavily on notes, at which he looked down frequently.

Like last week, David Cameron was unwilling to clash with Gordon Brown on the specifics of his own policy. This time it worked better because of his confident manner and its relation to his narrative, Cameron turning to the audience and inviting them to join him in dismissing Brown as a desperate man. Just as in formal debating, where teams are well advised to focus more on their stronger opponents, Cameron found the right balance in his characterising of Brown’s attacks – “he has nothing left positive to say” – “which country does he think he is the Prime Minister of?”.

The final statements were a microcosm of the debate. Cameron made a positive, patriotic statement of the sort you might expect to hear outside 10 Downing Street. Brown listed reasons not to vote for the other two parties and looked a beaten man.

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