On Thursday night, David Cameron didn’t eviscerate the competition. But nor did he suffer any damage and that, to Tory high command, meant that it was job done.
The Tory leadership didn’t want any debates at all, they’d rather not have taken the risk. So, to get through this one debate with the dynamics of the campaign unchanged was, to their mind, a result. As Cameron enjoyed a late night drink with Samantha Cameron, George Osborne and his key aides on Thursday, he reflected on how much better he felt than he did after the first debate five years ago when he knew that he had not only underperformed but that he had two more to get through. This time round he’d done fine and was done with debates.’
By contrast, Miliband still has to debate Nicola Sturgeon, Nigel Farage, Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood. This debate has the potential to be a nightmare for Miliband. The Nationalists and the Greens will attack him over austerity and Trident while Farage will take every opportunity to bring up immigration. The Tories are convinced that nothing good can come of this debate for the Labour leader. One Downing Street aide told me, ‘We’ll get the beer and crisps in that.’
But the Tories do need to now make some progress in the polls. There have been some encouraging signs for them recently but they are by no means where they need to be yet. As one Cabinet Minister said to me this week, ‘Start edging up to 38, 39 and you really are in business.’ The challenge for them over the next few weeks is to get there.