As the Labour high command began its post-match inquest, Gordon Brown said he could have done some things better in Thursday's televised debate. "Forget it," Lord Mandelson told him. "There's only one story coming out of this – Clegg."
He reassured the Prime Minister that Nick Clegg's performance was a "bonus" for Labour because it ensured that David Cameron "lost" the debate. Lord Mandelson judged that Mr Brown had done himself some good: even voters who do not warm to him were reminded that he is a heavyweight with a firm hand on the economic tiller and a grip on the issues.
Naturally, Mr Brown would have preferred to win but some of his advisers had predicted the Clegg triumph. "All he really had to do was to stand there, make sure his trousers didn't fall down and display his skills. He did that," one said. "The public was surprised because he is the guy who is shouted down in the House of Commons."
Labour put a brave face on Mr Brown's third place in the post-debate opinion polls. Douglas Alexander, Labour's campaign co-ordinator, told party workers at Westminster yesterday: "The debate has energised this contest. Many voters have not made up their minds. The election is wide open. There is everything to play for."
Mr Brown yesterday took the train to Brighton, where Labour faces a serious challenge from the Green Party. En route he told journalists: "People will be interested now to see the arguments that people put forward. When the dust settles about who said what, how and to what effect, the arguments will become a lot clearer."
Asked whether the election was now a three-horse race, the Prime Minister said: "We are in a really interesting contest now where people will have to choose who they want as the government, and that's a big question."
Interviewed by BBC Radio Sussex in Brighton, Mr Brown said: "People were seeing Nick Clegg for the first time. It is the way it is. I am a serious guy. I don't think there was a lot of laughs from any of the candidates, to be honest." On the pavement outside the radio station, office workers and children on their Easter holidays strained with their camera phones to capture a photograph of Mr Brown leaving.
Opinion was divided among those who plan to vote on whether the debate made any difference.
Douglas Campbell, 60 and self-employed, said: "Gordon Brown is a decent man, but he doesn't come over very well. He needs to loosen up a bit – he looked too tutored." While he also thought Mr Clegg came across well, Mr Campbell said it hadn't changed his mind and he would still be voting Labour.
A lecturer at a local college agreed that while a lot of people would tune into the remaining two debates, it wouldn't change how they vote. "I'm disillusioned with all of them but my view is that it's better the devil you know and that won't be changing," he said, indicating he would also be voting Labour.
Teacher Stephen Bull, 38, disagreed. "TV debates are very important and I'm still making up my mind," he said.
After a trip to a Brighton and Hove sixth-form college, Mr Brown and the accompanying Labour battlebus made their way to a Tesco megastore on the outskirts of Hastings.
Inside, shoppers paused on their mid-afternoon shop and lined the aisles for a chance to meet the Prime Minister and shake his hand.
Deborah Kerr, 40 and a housewife, said some of her friends had already been swayed by last night's debate. "I spoke to another mum today who was going to vote for Cameron but she said she can't any more. He wasn't answering the questions and he sounded like he was reading from a textbook rather than speaking from the heart," she said.
Mrs Kerr also said she would be changing her own vote even though the debate "felt contrived". She said: "I was leaning towards the Lib Dems but now I think I will go back to the old favourite – Gordon Brown seemed more honest."
Kim Forward, 58, a housewife, said: "We've never had a Prime Minister in Hastings before and I think it's fantastic that he's getting out to places where ordinary people are – it shows he's a man of the people." Others were less convinced. "You won't win the election here, mate," said one heckler, Trevor Glazier, a newspaper delivery man.
*Gordon Brown has agreed to be quizzed by the Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman before the election. Nick Clegg has already been grilled by the famously aggressive interviewer but David Cameron is yet to agree.
One down, two to go In the red corner
*Strengths to play to
Safe hand on the tiller. Not flashy, but he has the intellect and experience to deal with the economic crisis: look how he led the world in tackling the downturn. Public services are safe in his hands
*Weaknesses to correct
Needs to talk to the camera (and thus the country) and not the studio audience. Has to be more nimble on his feet – a pre-prepared joke and a reference to Tory funder Lord Ashcroft felt contrived.
Retreating into his comfort zone by reeling off lists of statistics. Strange tic of randomly smiling while speaking.Reuse content