Election TV debate verdict: Clash defies the doubters

Some said this debate would be sterile, and strangled by dozens of pre-agreed rules. There were, of course, no lethal blows. None of the three leaders was left battered and bloodied on the floor.

But it was quite a bit more feisty than most people expected. The “free debating” sections after each man had given his initial answer provided the opportunity for some moderately aggressive fencing.

It was much more like a cut-and-thrust House of Commons encounter than many had predicted (without all the sound effects from the benches). All three leaders were fired up for the big occasion. Nerves played a part, but didn’t spoil the big night for any of the men who hope to be Prime Minister after May 6th.

The evening began predictably enough with the leaders setting out their initial stall in well-prepared speeches. These should have been the easiest part – but all three sounded a little awkward and over-rehearsed.

The relatively polite initial skirmishes didn’t last. There was quite a bit of early sparring between Mr Brown and Mr Cameron. They frequently spoke over each other, and Mr Brown in particular took every opportunity to insert his pre-prepared barbs (on Lord Ashcroft and the “airbrushed posters” of Cameron).

This left Mr Clegg a lot of space in the first half of the debate to make many of his points largely unchallenged. Then on political reform, Mr Brown made a real play for Liberal Democrat votes – seeking consensus with the man in the golden tie.

This was fascinating for all those obsessing about the “what if” scenarios in the event of a hung parliament. Could there be enough common ground for a new Lib-Lab pact with political reform at its heart?

Not on tonight’s evidence. Every one of Mr Brown’s advances was swiftly rejected by Mr Clegg. The Liberal Democrat leader was not going to fall into the political trap of cosying up to either of his rivals.

The big economy debate was supposed to be the last of the three encounters. But, in this election there is no escaping it as an issue. Both Labour and the Conservatives think the battle over when to start cutting spending is a fight they can win. This was where we saw some of the sharpest exchanges in the second half of the debate.

To the party strategists, the questions would have come as a fairly predictable tour of domestic policy: immigration, prisons, tax, schools, hospitals, political reform and social care. On the night, there were no major surprises from the audience.

So, the leaders weren’t really troubled by the “left field” or “personal” question. That helped them all get through this big clash without tripping up.

These three men are all immersed in detail. Every day interviewers and their own advisers try to test party ideas to destruction. It was always unlikely that any of the leaders would really struggle in an examination of their main policies.

At the media centre here in Manchester, the arm-twisting is beginning. Victory is being claimed by all three parties after a fascinating evening. But, nobody can say for certain whether this encounter has decisively shifted momentum in this campaign.

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