Judge: Andy Hume
Winner: David Cameron
Scores: Cameron 79 | Clegg 77 | Brown 74
This was a debate characterised by a great deal of negativity and criticisms of other parties’ policies; when it came to defending and supporting their own arguments and plans, the leaders seemed less sure-footed. David Cameron put in his best performance of the three debates after a relatively shaky start, but seemed light on substance. Nick Clegg was again engaging and, except for a couple of answers, generally assured. Gordon Brown’s repeated attacks on the Conservatives will have divided viewers, with supporters feeling that his challenges went unanswered and everyone else probably seeing him as relentlessly negative.
David Cameron had a strong opening statement but in the early exchanges seemed vulnerable when put under pressure by the other participants – his defence of the Tory policy on inheritance tax, while skilful, was not terribly convincing, and some of his answers a bit vague – how will you get the banks lending again? How will you revive British manufacturing? However, as the evening went on, he seemed to grow in stature. In a debate full of questions and challenges (mostly unanswered), Cameron’s attacks on Gordon Brown’s economic record seemed to hit the mark more consistently than anyone else’s and his performance overall was better than in previous debates.
Nick Clegg effectively portrayed the nation’s problems as stemming from a succession of Labour and Conservative governments – on pensions, for example, or on public spending cuts, where he reminded us that neither of the other leaders had gone beyond boilerplate talk of finding efficiencies and cutting waste. Generally assured, he found himself under concerted attack a couple of times – on the Euro and on immigration policy – and appeared defensive on both these issues. (It is probably not a coincidence that these are two of the few areas where Lib Dem policy is out of step with popular sentiment.)
Gordon Brown got the balance wrong in this debate, in my opinion, with too much negativity both in matter and manner terms. Time and again a brief outline of policy was quickly followed by the words “But I have to say…” and then an attack on the Conservatives. Brown’s appeal, made explicit in his closing statement, was that he was the safest and least worst of the three options in front of us. With the exception of some spirited defences of his actions during the banking crisis – where he seemed stronger and more confident – Brown gave precious few positive reasons for undecided voters to vote for him.
In manner terms there was a clear divide between the incumbent and his two challengers. Cameron and Clegg both made effective eye contact, and their body language was relaxed and confident. Unlike Brown, they both repeatedly addressed questioners directly by name – note in particular how often Clegg thought audience members (and by extension voters) were “absolutely right” in the issues they raised. The latter also used his central position quite effectively, subliminally positioning himself as a moderator, above the fray of partisan points scoring (“There they go again”). Brown appeared more ill at ease than in the previous debates and repeatedly shook his head at comments made by the other leaders – an old debaters’ trick to signal to adjudicators that opponents are saying something questionable, but in this context it looked negative and petty. All three men had, mercifully, dropped the irritating “I met a man in Manchester the other day who said…” formula so widely mocked after the first debate.
Overall, though, it was a somewhat disappointing and negative encounter, which will probably have done little to change voters’ minds ahead of next Thursday.