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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
filmReview: In the face of all-round devastation, even Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson appears a little puny
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Bright lights, big city: Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles by dusk
books
Sport
Harry Kane makes Paul Scholes' Premier League team of the season
footballPaul Scholes on the best players, managers and goals of the season - and the biggest disappointments
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

£35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Estimating, preparation of tech...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will work as part of a smal...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor