Nick Clegg broke the duopoly in British politics with a strong performance in last night’s historic first televised election debate between the three main party leaders.
The Liberal Democrat leader seized the moment by matching Gordon Brown and David Cameron blow for blow during 90 minutes of lively exchanges which confounded expectations that the 76 strict rules of engagement would produce a sterile discussion.
A ComRes poll for ITV News found that 43 per cent of viewers believed Mr Clegg won the debate, well ahead of Mr Cameron on 26 per cent and Mr Brown on 20 per cent. A YouGov survey for The Sun gave the Lib Dem leader an even bigger margin of victory – 51 per cent, with the Tory leader on 29 per cent and the Prime Minister on 19 per cent.
Bookmakers immediately cut their odds on a hung parliament and even a Lib Dem victory.
Lord [Paddy] Ashdown, the former Lib Dem leader, said the public had seen the "real Nick Clegg" for the first time. "He walked away with it,” he said. "This debate has shown the Nick Clegg the House of Commons refuses to allow people to see with their bullying and their shouting. For the first time we now have the public able to see the real Nick Clegg and they love it."
Although all three parties inevitably claimed victory afterwards, Mr Clegg’s relaxed, confident and passionate performance raised hopes among the Lib Dems that Britain had finally entered a new era of three-party politics. Last night’s debate in Manchester, screened live on ITV, came 50 years after the first US presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy. It offered a unique opportunity for Britain’s third party to compete on an equal footing with Labour and the Tories and Mr Clegg took it.
Mr Cameron, ahead in the opinion polls and seen as the most polished TV performer, had the most to lose last night – and Labour and the Lib Dems claimed he had indeed done so. Ironically, he was first to propose the leaders’ debates.
Labour sources insisted Mr Brown had exposed the Tories’ failure to match Labour’s pledges on police numbers and schools spending. The Tories claimed Mr Cameron had proved he was ready to be prime minister, saying he was “personal, direct and in command”. They said the Prime Minister had been too aggressive.
The three leaders referred to each other by their first names and there was no knock-out blow or disastrous gaffe. But that did not prevent fierce clashes over issues such as economy, MPs’ expenses and immigration.
Mr Cameron claimed that immigration was “out of control” and called for numbers entering the country every year to be brought down from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands. The Prime Minister retorted: “I don’t like these words, because we are bringing it under control.” He condemned Tory plans to impose an annual cap on migrant numbers as “arbitrary”.
Mr Clegg also condemned the Tory proposals, but accused both the other parties of “talking tough about immigration, but delivering chaos”.
The Prime Minister agreed with Mr Clegg over the need for electoral reform, pointing to his plans to hold referendums on changing the voting system and replacing the Lords with a directly-elected chamber. Mr Clegg fired back: “They [Labour] did nothing for 13 years.”
Mr Cameron dismissed Labour’s backing for electoral reform so close to the election as a “bit of a ploy” and accused the Liberal Democrat leader of being “holier than thou”, pointing to the £2.5m his party received from Michael Brown, a “criminal on the run”.
The opening, one-minute statements by the leaders – who did not know the audience’s questions in advance – were revealing. Mr Brown’s pitch, in effect, was that the country needed to stick with his experience until the economic storm had passed so it avoided a double-dip recession. “This is the defining year,” he said. “These are no ordinary times, and this is no ordinary election.”
Mr Cameron began with an apology over the expenses scandal, admitting: “Your politicians - frankly, all of us - let you down." He said: “There is a big choice at this election. We can go on as we are, or we can say 'No, Britain can do much better.’ We can deal with our debts, we can get our economy growing and avoid this jobs tax, and we can build a bigger society.”
Mr Clegg directed his fire equally at what he called “the two old parties,” saying the election offered “a fantastic opportunity to do things differently.” He told voters: “So don’t let anyone tell you the only choice is the same old politics. We can do something new, something different.”
The Prime Minister warned that Tory plans to cut £6bn from spending in 2010-11 would threaten thousands of jobs of “good people”.
Mr Cameron said the savings were achievable as the public sector remained profligate, citing a recent seven per cent pay rise to hospital managers. He added: “Gordon is effectively saying: ‘I want to go on wasting now so I can put up your taxes later’."
The Lib Dem leader accused his two rivals of not being straight with country and pretending that huge sums could be saved just by scrapping “paper clips and pot plants” in Whitehall.
The moderator, the ITV presenter Alastair Stewart, described the debate as “history in the making” and told The Independent after the debate last night: “I was satisfied with the way the format worked because it was the first time for anyone. We were feeling our way. We have proved this can be done but I think we will be suggesting refinements to the rules in the future.
“The area we need to look most clearly at is the audience participation. It would have been both fascinating and enlightening to go back to the people who asked the questions to see if they were satisfied with the answers.”
He added: “Backstage it was electric. If you have the head of ITV Current Affairs biting his nails it really focuses your mind.”
Addressing criticism that he kept butting in to the discussion, Mr Stewart explained: “I cut their answers off because I was following the rules. I was policing two things: the free debate, which couldn’t go over four minutes [an issue], and I also had to look at equity to make sure no one was lagging behind and everyone got their fair share. It was my principal job and I did it.
“Nick took the most risks by being the most conversational and the most apparently relaxed. It could have come off looking amateurish but he ended up looking quite accomplished. However, I must stress that all three carried themseleves off extremely well.
“I thought the level of backchat was fine, it was most interesting when they were sparring. We could have had bit more of that.”
The second 90-minute debate takes place on Sky next Thursday and will focus on foreign affairs, while the final one a week later on BBC 1 will cover the economy.
Clash of the leaders: Key moments
GB "We want to control immigration. I introduced a points system... "
DC "Immigration is too high at the moment, it has been for the last 10 years and needs to come down. Two million over a decade – it's too much. We need not just a points system but a limit."
Clegg makes three references to "hardened criminals on the run" and describes prisons as "overcrowded colleges of crime". Cameron tells a story about a burglary which ended with the sofa being set alight and a child dying, and says the perpetrator will soon be released, too soon for his liking.
8.54pm: First joke
Brown on the Tory attack billboards carrying his face: "My face is smiling in these posters and I'm very grateful to you and Lord Ashcroft for funding that."
8.59pm: Political reform
The discussion began on MPs' expenses.
GB "I was shocked and sickened... We need to reform the House of Commons and cut the House of Lords by 50 per cent."
DC "Gordon, you've had 13 years... "
NC says the Lib Dems pushed a bill to sack MPs, and points to both men, "You blocked it. You blocked it."
9.23pm: The economy
The evening's key exchange was on the economy, with Cameron saying Government expenditure should be cut because it was bloated by "waste".
DC "If we think the future is just spending more money it's profoundly wrong. It's like saying that giving up smoking would be bad for your health. Cut the waste, it will be good for the economy."
NC "These two talk about waste as if we could fill the black hole in public finances by cutting paperclips and pot plants in Whitehall."
GB "The only reason we have kept the economy moving is because the Government stepped in to put money into the economy. Only the Conservative Party is against that. It is important to take no risks with the recovery. Once again the Conservatives are showing they are a risk to the recovery."
DC "£6bn [cuts] is [only] one out of every £100 this government spends – which business or family hasn't had to make that decision at some point?"
Before this exchange, the ITV.com live ratings were: Clegg 57 per cent, Cameron 23 per cent, Brown 20 per cent. Afterwards, it was Clegg 43 per cent, Brown 34 per cent, Cameron 22 per cent.
Each leader's key line
Clegg: The more they attack each other the more they sound the same.
Cameron: You've had 13 years, Gordon.
Broke rules (kept talking)
Nick Clegg 9
David Cameron 0
Gordon Brown 5
"I agree with Nick"
Brown love bombs Lib Dem: 7 times.
Working the crowd
Clegg name-checks the audience: 10 times.
10pm: Score on ITV.com ratings
Clegg 45 per cent, Brown 36 per cent, Cameron 19 per cent
YouGov: NC 51 per cent, DC 29 per cent, GB 19 per cent
ITV poll: NC 43 per cent, DC 26 per cent, GB 20 per cent