David Cameron wanted the debates. He secured the coveted middle rostrum. And he came a cropper. Is that a fair summary of what happened on Thursday night? On the surface, yes. He had most to lose, which was why it was surprising that he agreed to the debates in the first place. The reason that we have not had televised debates in this country before is that it has never been in the front runner's interest to agree to them.
This time was different for two reasons. One was that Cameron felt that his pitch for a new, open politics required it. The other was that he thought he would win. He first challenged Gordon Brown to a debate before the election that never was, two-and-a-half years ago. The world was different then: Gordon Brown was enjoying a honeymoon as new prime minister, but Cameron sensed weakness, and how right he was. Brown's reputation collapsed when he called off the election and did not start to recover until the end of last year. But now the world is upside down. Brown has turned his indestructibility into a strength, and the credit crunch has changed the terms of the economic argument.
The economic crisis has allowed Brown to turn "time for change" into a threat as much as an opportunity, which was his basic argument in the debate: "You cannot afford to take money out of the economy now because you will put jobs at risk, businesses at risk, and you put the whole recovery at risk."
Having challenged Brown to a debate, Cameron could not pull out when Brown, with nothing to lose last year, accepted. Brown was so keen to roll the dice that he conceded equal status for Nick Clegg, which Cameron also had to accept. Locked in, with most to lose, he duly lost it.
Although we have to define "lose" in the weird expectations-management dialect of journalese. The instant post-debate polls, including one by our own company ComRes, put Cameron in second place, albeit a distant second. But for someone whose claim to the leadership of his party and the country is heavily dependent on his communication skills, a distant second looks like a defeat. While for Gordon Brown to get through 90 minutes without disaster was some kind of victory.
And Clegg was bound to win; he was widely predicted to do so. Even so, the way in which he seized his opportunity, combined with the sheer strangeness of the event, meant that his triumph came as a surprise. He was shameless and effective in posing as the anti-politics alternative to the other two. Policy details did not matter. Cornered, he twice demanded an all-party consensus "just for once". (On many issues there already is one, such as on Afghanistan.)
But Clegg's victory was not as emphatic as the post-debate polls suggested. For one thing, the verdict of the polls simplifies the complexity of the debate, which was packed with detail. All three spoke too fast, with no pauses, light, shade or colour. The first joke – Brown's thanking Cameron for posters of him smiling – was nearly half an hour in. Cameron relied too much on the meaningless Blairite word, "properly", which he pronounces "proply". He was quick to pick up points made by the others, and dealt with them deftly. "Gordon says Nick agrees with Gordon and Nick says Nick doesn't agree with Gordon," he said, mocking Brown's attempt to cosy up to Clegg on first-name terms. Whereas Brown appeared not to even notice much of what his opponents had said. Cameron was also good at the courtesies, using questioners' first names and prefacing his answer to a nurse by thanking her for her service. But Clegg appeared more at ease both with the audience and with switching to address the nation directly through the camera.
His win was a triumph of style over substance, however. The British people are not going to vote to get rid of Trident, which would not save much money in the short term anyway. Even if the Liberal Democrat surge in the opinion polls is sustained for two-and-a-half weeks, it would not make Clegg's party the largest in the House of Commons.
In that sense, the debate did not change anything fundamental. Clegg has probably ensured that the Liberal Democrats gain seats, which was not guaranteed before. He has decisively distanced his party from the negative, anti-politics mood that grinds down the big two. But the only question is how his little bit of the stardust of impossiblism affects the gap between the other two parties, who remain locked in a boxers' embrace, five or six percentage points apart. The election will be decided by the actual size of that gap on 6 May, currently leaning towards the Tories as the largest party over Labour. Despite Brown's clumsy attempts to bear-hug "Nick", and Cameron's decision to waste time and credit attacking him, rising Lib Dem support seems to come from the other two parties equally.
On the substance, you either tend towards Cameron or towards Brown. I thought Cameron engaged with the issues more thoughtfully. When he said, for example, that the "other side of the coin" of the immigration issue was welfare reform, I agreed with him. "We have got too many people who could work, who are offered work but who don't work," he said. "That has actually drawn a lot of people into our country." All Brown has ever offered is the odious slogan, "British jobs for British workers." In the post-debate polls, Cameron emerged with a six-point advantage over Brown.
Next time, foreign affairs on Sky (and on the internet) will attract a smaller audience. So the big one is the third debate, on the economy, chaired by David Dimbleby. The expectations game will have turned round. Clegg will be set up to fall short of his new Obama-like status. Brown has little headroom to score better than last week. It is Cameron who has the scope and the ability to do better.
John Rentoul blogs at www.independent.co.uk/jrentoulReuse content