Clegg’s rousing, cheesily Obamaesque peroration; Cameron’s effective Lib Dem expenses jibe; and Brown’s "Dave would be bad for the economy, and Nick would be bad for security" combo. There were some great TV moments in last night’s debate. But what effect, if any, will they have on the wider campaign?
The pre-debate polls this week had been tight. The Lib Dem bubble, which appeared to be turning British politics on its head for good, has not yet burst. But it’s fair to say that it has deflated slightly, with our poll of polls suggesting that all three parties are closer than ever with under two weeks to polling day.
Strategists for the Labour Party, hovering between second and third place, seem surprisingly calm about the whole thing. This is not just because they trust the quirks of the electoral system to compensate for a poor showing on polling day, but also because they are comfortable with the polls predicting a hung parliament.
Six months ago, with polls pointing to a sizeable Tory majority, Gordon Brown would have bitten Ed Balls’s arm off for a hung parliament. If this is the outcome on 6 May, it will look worse for the Tories than for Labour. Senior Tories are already asking whether David Cameron could survive such an outcome.
Last night’s debate was billed as the moment when all would become clear – would Nick Clegg trip over his own inflated expectations, or could he use the platform to solidify his surge? The many unscientific instant reaction polls broadly suggested a three-way tie, with improved performances from Gordon Brown and David Cameron, and more of the same from Nick Clegg.
Perhaps the Conservatives recognised that David Cameron would not come out on top in the post-debate shakedown, as they immediately tried to draw the media’s focus elsewhere, pushing hard on the ‘dodgy leaflets’ story as soon as the debate finished.
And, with smears and counter-smears flying in every direction overnight, it became increasingly difficult to disaggregate the impact of the debates from the flotsam and jetsam of the wider campaign.
This muddying of the post-debate waters will probably help Cameron and Brown, and take some of the glow off this week’s Cleggmania. But with two weeks to go, and the polls tightening, the election is becoming harder to predict by the day. This weekend’s opinion polls, the first comprehensive assessment of the state of play following the second debate, may shed some light on where the campaign may be going. But don’t count on it.