Simon Carr: Clegg’s new role is to make Cameron look battle-hardened

The Sketch

Piteous reports of the Prime Minister in the country were coming through yesterday. Surrounded by hostile public and media – he was acting out the end of Rocky: "Aaaadrienne! Aaaaaadrienne!" His wife ended up leading him around by the elbow. He is becoming every day a greater object of terror and pity.

As a result, there was something heroic about him in last night's debate. He was, in his way, magnificent. He had the strongest voice, the biggest case and the most pointed lines of attack. It also seemed to be true – judging from the instant results – that no one wants to hear what he has to say. The economy was his special subject, his longest suit, and he came last in all polls. He may (or may not) have won the arguments, the substance, the policy – and his vote collapsed.

At least his elegists and obituarists will have found material and things to admire.

Not his human touch, obviously, not his connection with the hall. My word they sat there with one serious look on their collective face.

His job was to persuade us that voting Tory is a vote for cancer. His examples were a little brightly coloured – why cut corporation tax for the banks to take money away from honest manufacturing? Why take money from children and give it to millionaires? Why "take money out of the economy" by not going along with a tax hike?

There are perfectly good answers to these – crisp, clear, counter-punchy – and Cameron's reluctance to argue back is one of the mysteries of the campaign.

Gordon's strongest attack has been made a dozen times in the debates. The inheritance tax proposals only benefit a derisory number of millionaires. The Conservative press office email out a rebuttal – that the figure is not 3,000 beneficiaries but 4 million estates. Cameron never mentions it. Why not? It was the policy that revived Tory fortunes and it only provokes a generalised, philosophical defence. It may be there's something rotten in there and he doesn't want to let it out.

The Tory leader at last produced a response to the claim that a tax hike is "putting money into the economy". He described this as a mistake of the PM which "confuses the economy with the Government". Does that turn the lights on for you? I don't quite get it. What about: "Only the most extreme socialists believe that money is 'in the economy' when it's been taxed and spent by the Government."

And the Lib-Debs – the Liberal-Debutants. Will the trick work again? Over to you, that's outside my sphere.

Having heard Clegg three times playing the same trick – professionally and fairly convincingly – would you agree he sounded well versed in the old politics? Yes or no? Answer yes or no, yes or... You get the idea.

It must be said that his eyebrows look unfinished? Local experts suspect they've been plucked. And is his collar slightly too large? So that there's room to grow into it, as our mothers said when we were nine? One of Clegg's important influences is on our perception of the Tories. He's now the ingenu. He's new. He pushes Cameron up a school year. He makes Cameron look battle-hardened. Maybe that's why the blue vote is hardening.

At least we know at a deeper level than before that argument is not enough. You can win and still lose. Tragic! And not a little comic, too.

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