Clegg basks in his place in the sun

Alarmed Conservative and Labour strategists are planning an unprecedented attack on the Liberal Democrats after Nick Clegg's victory in the first leaders' debate transformed the general election into a three-horse race.

According to a poll published today, the Liberal Democrats leapt into second place after the programme, suggesting that the party was well-placed to make a dramatic breakthrough in the closest election contest for nearly 20 years.

The YouGov survey in The Sun puts the Tories on 33 per cent, the Liberal Democrats on 30 per cent and Labour on 28 per cent. Repeated on an even swing at the election, those figures would produce a hung parliament with Labour the largest single party with 276 MPs, against 246 Tories and 99 Liberal Democrats.

It echoed an earlier poll that discovered a surge in support for the party after Mr Clegg went head to head with David Cameron and Gordon Brown.

The historic 90-minute encounter between the leaders attracted up to 10.4 million viewers. As Mr Cameron and Mr Brown acknowledged that Mr Clegg had performed strongly, their parties were poised to turn the spotlight on Liberal Democrat policy on tax, spending, immigration and Europe.

The Tories, in particular, are expected to go for the jugular amid fears in Conservative headquarters that a strong Liberal Democrat showing could pave the way for a deal between Mr Clegg and Mr Brown in a hung parliament.

Mr Clegg will spend today preparing for next week's debate and steadying himself for a sustained attack from his rivals attempting to reverse his electoral bounce.

In an interview with The Independent last night, he admitted that he had been "terrified" at being the first leader to speak in the debate. "You would have to have a heart of stone not to be nervous. But after a while, I genuinely started to enjoy it. When they said 'That's it,' I thought they meant it was the end of the first half."

Speaking on a train to London after campaigning in Hull, he said: "I have been mocked in the past for saying I want to be Prime Minister – I'm not going to apologise for my ambition."

Mr Clegg insisted he was not intimidated by the threat of attack from the Conservatives. "If the Tories want to have a contest of ideas instead of a contest of advertising budgets, I am very confident we can win that. The Tory strategy has been about avoiding talking about policy, and spending money to win the election. If we can pull them off that strategy, it will have been a huge success."

Next week's leaders' debate will focus on foreign affairs. But Mr Clegg made clear he would not spring any surprises over the conflict in Afghanistan, such as backing a phased withdrawal of troops.

The Tories' opening shots against the Liberal Democrats were fired by Michael Gove, the shadow Children's Secretary, who highlighted their plans to join the single currency, scrap the Trident nuclear deterrent and give an amnesty to illegal immigrants.

Mr Gove said: "The greater degree of scrutiny these policies have, the more people will realise that, while Nick Clegg is a very attractive individual in many ways, the policies of his party are outside the mainstream and a little bit eccentric – not necessarily what you would want at a time of crisis."

Meanwhile, Douglas Alexander, Labour's election co-ordinator, said: "Mr Clegg was always bound to gain from equal billing and he presented his case well. But his policies have yet to come under real scrutiny. People will be in for some surprises about the content of Liberal Democrat policies."

Labour's focus will be on the party's plans to save £1.3bn a year on tax credits by restricting them to the worse off, restrict winter fuel payments to the over-65s, and end contributions to child trust funds.

Tory strategists fear a Liberal Democrat advance could deprive them of target seats held by Mr Clegg's party in the South-west of England. Labour will be happy for Liberal Democrat support to firm up against the Tories, but they will be worried that a surge in backing for the party could cause a stream of Labour casualties in the north of England.

The potential for the debates to give Mr Clegg a new political platform was also underlined by the ComRes poll conducted among 4,000 people who watched the debate. It suggested that the Liberal Democrat leader's performance lifted his party's support among them to 35 per cent, up 14 points from before the programme, while support for the Conservatives dropped three points to 36 per cent and for Labour by three points to just 24 per cent. Extrapolated across the country by taking into account non-viewers, the Tories would be on 35 per cent, Labour on 28 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 24 per cent.

Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
Arts & Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'
tv
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Sport
Pablo Larrazabal jumps into a pond in Kuala Lumpur to escape a swarm of hornets
videoSpain's Pablo Larrazabal's had a refreshing solution
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
Sport
Jonathan Trott will take a second break from cricket after suffering a repeat of the stress-related illness that forced him out of the Ashes tour of Australia
sport
Life & Style
life
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit