A YouGov poll taken immediately after tonight's leaders' debate shows David Cameron to be the 'winner' on 36 per cent, Nick Clegg second with 32 per cent and Gordon Brown on 29 per cent. ComRes found Clegg to be on top with 32 per cent while the other two leaders shared 30 per cent. Social networking media generally considered the three leaders to be level-pegging.
It was only to be expected that Cameron would up his game after last Thursday's wooden performance and that Clegg was unlikely to be able to live up to all the hype of the last week. Brown seemed fairly consistent and remained authoritative on detail.
Tory nerves will have been steadied tonight; Nick Clegg did not implode under the pressure of being perceived as having ended the two-horse race and was quite effective at maintaining the “neither of the above” stance which served him well last week. Gordon Brown sailed dangerously near to condescension with his comment that the Lib Dem and Conservative leaders “sounded like my two young boys squabbling at bath-time” but was effective at persistently bringing debate back to managing economic recovery - the ground on which he is most convincing. The ComRes poll found most respondents thought Brown was the leader who had performed better than expected.
The exchanges were more confrontational and abrasive than in last week's slightly nervous and careful encounter and there was a real feeling of tension between the differing policies and social visions on offer.
The two main party leaders needed to knock Nick Clegg out of the running but failed to do so. Cameron, though his performance was more sure and fluent than before, again fell back on too many references to the “jobs tax” and still looked tight-lipped and slightly peevish under pressure. Gordon Brown, having the advantage of being the man in the loop of international decision making with all its compromises and complex adjudications, did a reasonable job of appearing as the calm and knowledgeable statesman.
In response to a wide variety of questions from how to “tackle European interference” to managing immigration with fairness, via pensions, Afghanistan, the Pope's visit, cleaning up politics and managing the deficit, there were both the usual lines and some vivid moments. Clegg's description of the Tories' European Parliament alliance with “ a bunch of anti-Semitic, homophobic, climate-change denying nutters” was the most striking, with Brown's response to Clegg's take on how to counter terrorist plots: “get real Nick. I have to deal with these situations every day” a close second.
Predictably, the arguments on defence were disappointing. Clegg's opposition to Trident, though welcome, does not disguise the fact that the Lib Dems' choice is for a cheaper deterrent rather than for abolition. The contributions of the other two leaders made it obvious that peace making, conflict resolution and the pursuit of international justice were not high on the agenda. Being “strong” was the only game in town and Cameron's defence of Trident on the grounds that “we don't know what the world will look like in 40 years time” was particularly sterile and dispiriting.
All three men were far more abrasive than in the last debate. The phenomenon which Boris Johnson called "an amazing bout of Cleggophilia" will probably fade to some extent over the coming week. Neither of the other two did each other much harm despite some sharp cross-questioning from Brown on the Tories' plans for removing free prescriptions and eye tests for pensioners and Cameron's comeback challenge on Labour's "lying" leaflets on this and on the winter fuel allowance.
Back in Spin Alley, from where many papers will draw tomorrow's copy, Liam Fox described Cameron as "the Prime Minister in waiting"; Paddy Ashdown thought that Nick Clegg had "confirmed the three-way choice and mastered the debate" while David Milband claimed Brown "commanded the stage and became more and more dominant as each question went on". So, no change there.
Nick Clegg probably had the evening's strongest line when he called on the parties to work together to provide the social care that would give “dignity in old age”. There was not much on show this evening to suggest that the big two, despite their protestations on respecting whatever hand the electorate deals them on May 6, are ready for co-operation. But if a week is a long time in politics, a fortnight may yet be sufficient to give us hope.