Alan Watkins: Clegg's soft touch will be hard to sustain

The Lib Dem leader's success in the first debate resembles an old-style third-party win in a by-election
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The Independent Online

From the acres of opinion on display on Friday, I seem to find myself in a minority of one. The "great debate" has been pronounced an outstanding success. Hardened political commentators journeyed all the way to Manchester for... for what exactly? They might just as well have watched the proceedings from the modest comfort of their own sitting rooms, as I did myself.

Indeed, I watched part of Coronation Street, with the sound turned down. The first time I have done so, on that previous occasion turned up, for about 20 years. I watch a good deal of Channel 4, but to the main ITV channel I give a wide berth. There it is.

For the commentating classes, where I am but a small cog in the machine, the question arises: what are we supposed to do with ourselves for the rest of the week? The younger and more enthusiastic element may attend press conferences and may even attempt to join a canvassing expedition, his or her efforts usually repulsed by the organisers. The more sedate among us confine our researches to Sky News.

There are now only two questions for the remaining days. How did Mr Nick Clegg, Mr David Cameron and Mr Gordon Brown "do" on Thursday? And how are these politicians likely to perform in their next encounter in a few days' time?

As there are to be three debates, the dynamics of these occasions (as learned people like to say), may change over days; or perhaps not.

Mr Clegg may still be full of confidence. Mr Cameron may inspire faith in his competence but not in his likeability. Mr Brown is doing the best he can in the circumstances. He has a trick of appearing to chew gum after making a particularly salient point. He smiles to himself. Of the three, it is Mr Brown who is taking the greatest risk.

Incumbent prime ministers always find an excuse for not appearing in front of the cameras on occasions of this kind. Mr Brown even tried out a joke. This was to the effect that Mr Cameron had done Mr Brown a favour by making him the subject of one of Lord Ashcroft's glossy covers. Or it was something like that. The story became mislaid in the telling.

My advice to Mr Brown would be: do not embark on a lengthy anecdote, especially one that involves Lord Ashcroft. No good can come of it. Similarly, quite pointed little anecdotes, based on school playgrounds, doctors' surgeries or what have you, have a habit of disappearing in the hands of any but the most skilled narrator, such as a professional comedian. I think perhaps American audiences are more receptive to stories, while the British variety are more resistant to pieces of folk wisdom.

Mr Cameron undoubtedly underwent some terrible experiences before the death of his son, as did his wife. There can be no doubt about that. Mr Cameron spoke movingly about the virtues of the National Health Service. Why then were the audience not more visibly moved? I do not think they were, though I may have been mistaken about that.

It would be irresponsible in the conscientious commentator to concentrate on Mr Cameron's words of wisdom of Thursday evening and to ignore his launch of the Conservative manifesto. He presents a nightmarish vision before the eyes of the active citizen. He or she is to be allowed hardly any rest.

From the school run at the crack of dawn to the staff meeting at the end of the day, there is to be a succession of assemblies of one sort or another. It is, to me, reminiscent of nothing so much as J J Rousseau's work The Social Contract, whose notion of the active citizen foretends some of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.

Mr Clegg seems to be a more relaxed kind of character. He clearly has no disposition to make friends with Mr Cameron. They may be forced to make an accommodation after 6 May, though my feeling is still that the Tories will have a majority.

For the moment, Mr Clegg might as well accept his good fortune. Mr Clegg turned Mr Brown's blandishments aside, as if he were a beautiful girl, who was rejecting the overtures of an ageing roué. Bother my head with that Gordon Brown! I have better things to do with my time, thank you very much.

Before the initial debate, the wisdom of the wise was that the Tories would pick up all kinds of seats from the Liberal Democrats. The current tally is 63, and the Conservatives foresaw small but perceptible gains. Labour, true, would be making losses of its own, but it would be a net gain for the Tories. Already the calculations have been thrown out of joint.

A possible comparison is with a by-election. The politicians on both sides take jolly good care not to hold a by-election when a general election is in prospect. It upsets too many settled expectations. A change to the Liberal Democrats or Nationalist representative has the effect of a small earthquake. The land sometimes returns to normal, sometimes not.

Politically, the effect of Mr Clegg's appearance on Thursday evening was the same as the effect of a Liberal Democrat win at a by-election. For many years there was almost a guaranteed supply of Liberal Democrat upsets. In later years, the supply was in danger of drying up. There is no comparable peril on 6 May. Mr Clegg can say: vote for me. There is bound to be a Liberal Democrat somewhere within easy reach. There may, however, be a touch of awkwardness in the second debate, on foreign affairs. Mr Charles Kennedy and his successor, Sir Menzies Campbell, succeeded in holding the line steady on Iraq.

But on Afghanistan there has been a certain amount of wobble. Certainly the historical origins of the two conflicts. Or, at any rate, it suited the purposes of liberal enlightenment to admit that the invasion of Iraq was an exercise in United States neo-conservatism, but to complain that the Afghan conflict was a virtuous war. Several enlightened persons fell for this line.

I blame Paddy Ashdown, for putting the Liberal Democrats behind the war in Afghanistan. I look forward to hearing similar questions addressed to Mr Clegg about matters of foreign policy.

So far, he has been cast in the role of Honest Nick. His expression of disgust – when Mr Cameron accused one of his Liberal Democrat backers with some of the party funds – had to be witnessed to be believed. The very idea! That was what Mr Clegg was trying to tell us. It was all cleared up, Mr Clegg averred. In fact it was not. The police are still pursuing their inquiries, or were when I last looked into the matter. Besides, Mr Clegg added, it was a long time ago.

Mr Clegg is adept at the soft answer that turneth away wrath. He does not have anything to teach Mr Cameron; still less poor Mr Brown, who chews gum even when he does not have anything to chew.