The headlines will be "score draw", but I’d say Cameron won – and
comfortably. I write this as someone who could have happily have sunk a few pins into a voodoo doll of David Cameron earlier on this evening – for taking the Conservatives (and Britain) to
this appalling point where he may yet lose the election. But he raised his game, substantially. At best, he spoke with passion and authenticity. This time, he looked like he was fighting for his
political life, which (of course) he is. Things are looking up. Here’s my participant-by-participant verdict:
Brown was his normal automaton self. He does tend to mangle his words, and his attempts at simplification backfire. On MPs who over-claimed expenses, he said: “no punishment is too great for
them”. Really? Defenestration? Hanging? “The 3,000 richest people country would get £2,000 each from an inheritance tax cut.” Except those people would be, em, dead – so the
cash wouldn’t help them much. And he lied about the bus passes (pressed by a genuinely angry Cameron). He loses credibility on issues like this.
“Three million reasons why we have to be in the European Union and they’re called jobs.” Is anyone mad enough to believe his premise – that if Britain has a Norway-style
relationship with the EU those jobs would go? He racked up the Tory votes when he highlighted the Tory policies to “repatriate powers to Britain” (note to Brown’s speechmakers:
this is the Tory language – "repatriate" is a positive word). He claimed that "net immigration is falling as a result of the measures we have taken" – the inflow has never
been higher. And, hell, here’s a graphic. The net figure is falling, because the exodus that I blogged about earlier is getting stronger. And yes, Brown can claim his policies have
contributed to that:
I thought he sounded intelligent and sincere. He was rather lucky that the debate came off foreign affairs pretty quickly – if this change of topic surprised him, it didn’t show. Clegg
underwhelms me generally, but impressed me tonight. He made a good (if implausible) case for coalition. But he, like Brown, talked up the Tories.
For example, Clegg talks about Cameron allying with "people who deny climate change" – eh, that’ll be the majority of the British public, then, Nick? He was lost here in a cul-de-sac of the Westminster Village.
Believing that humans cause climate change is a minority position in the real word, as poll after poll attests.
Clegg punched way above his weight, that’s for sure. But there was nothing even resembling a knock-out punch.
Only Cameron had people laughing with him, rather than at him. (I watched this at the Cambridge Union where I had just done a debate – so not the vox populi, I grant you). "I’ve
never uttered these words, but I agree with Gordon," said Cameron. Then he teased Clegg for flip-flopping on the Tory NI tax cut. “The first time I can remember someone coming up with a
nauseating aspiration they want to fulfill.” He spoke well on Europe, and used the language of tax cuts: “the threat to our recovery is not cutting waste, it’s the jobs
tax.” A little dishonest of him to claim he’s abolishing the tax, rather than the (tiny) increase in the tax though.
Yet again, I feel Cameron could have attacked harder. When Brown said “David, you’re a risk to our economy,” Cameron didn’t say, “Didn’t you just pump the
economy full of underpriced debt and lead us to the bust?” or laid a few low punches. He didn’t. Was this because he chose to be conciliatory, or because he wasn’t confident about
his chances of landing the punches?
On immigration, Cameron spoke still just said only he’d “bring it down” – no reference to the radicalism of his pledge to move it from hundreds of thousands to tens of
thousands (which he made last week). I’d say that caution again got in the way of his giving
the best performance he could. But that’s the story of his leadership so far.
Boulton was great. “Mr Clegg, you’re on the front page of the Telegraph today” – just what this had to do with foreign policy I’m not sure. But Boulton was going rogue
– and who’s going to complain? Will Brown refuse to work with him next time? As James said earlier, he used his flexibility to the max – and rightly.
This time, more so than last, it was thrilling. This campaign has been reduced to three television debates – whatever these guys get up to in between has become irrelevant. This
election has been transformed: good for democracy, bad for the Tories. And yes, I still believe that Cameron will pull this out of the fire. I might even forgive him for dropping it in the fire in
the first place.