Nick Clegg certainly gained most from the evening...But Cameron won in a different sense, in that he far outperformed Gordon Brown. In other words: I can't see Labour closing the gap on the Tories because of tonight's debate, and, if anything, the gap might increase. The difference between the two men was chiefly one of personality. Cameron humanised many of the issues, whereas Brown tried to use them as clubs against his Tory oppone. Cameron brought energy to the stage. Brown brought scowls, frowns and jibes about Lord Ashcroft.
For Cameron to win, he must be the change candidate. So his most serious mistake was letting Clegg gallop off with this particular banner, portraying the bigger parties as more of the "same old, same old" and the Lib Dems as the cleanskins who somehow have nothing to do with tarnished Westminster politics. He needs to pin Clegg down, as he did over party funding.
It's the anti-politics vote, combined with novelty, that probably gave it to Clegg in both ITV's instant reaction poll and its "dial test" panel.
As for Brown, he was on top of the detail, and solid. But he looked tired and rumpled, often glowering. Above all, his answers were too packed with indigestible policy detail. He failed to understood what Clegg intuited perfectly that TV debates are aimed not at the logical, but at the emotional part of the voter's brain. A long line of losing presidential candidates could have taught him that lesson.
Mr. Clegg was highly polished, looking directly at the camera at the right moments to reach viewers at home and interacting most effectively with the audience in the studio. Both other leaders said several times “I agree with Nick”, which must have been music to his ears. Here he was being wooed in public with a hung parliament a strong possibility.
Following these debates, it won’t be long before British party leaders are chosen by primary elections, not just party members (no more unopposed non-elections like the one that brought Gordon to the top job in the first place) and having been so chosen, will not easily be ousted by their colleagues. The significance of the debates is that they invite you to meet your new boss. And it’s you.
I think Nick Clegg won the day, if only by a short head. He put in a very confident performance and I can't think of an error that he made. Whenever I watch these debates I try to do it at least in part through the eyes of normal voters. And I have to be honest, I think they would have been impressed by Clegg. What he said may have been utter bollocks at times - and it was - but it was the way he said it. He also dictated the terms of the debate at times. As Vince Cable just said on the BBC, the constant repeating of "We agree with Nick" justifies that assertion.
Clegg is on a high - but it might not last. The Lib Dem leader was the clear winner of the debate tonight. This may change the dynamic of the election and he has every right to feel pleased with his performance. But let's keep this in proportion. He's not Barack Obama.
David Cameron was by far the most surprising of the three. Pinned in the middle, he often seemed under attack and subdued. Mr Brown put him under pressure and he didn’t manage to push back well; when he tried to change the subject it seemed contrived. He also seemed intentionally to be avoiding the aggressive style of the prime minister even eschewing one open-goal on under-equipped troops. A former Tory spin doctor who was watching with me said he was being deliberately “statesmanlike”. This, I think, was overly rose-tinted but as the evening progressed it did seem a calculated strategy to seem calm under fire and to avoid the most extreme yah-boo politics.
I was once given a George W. Bush doll which, if you pressed a button on his lapel, would recite one of his soundbites. At times, this is what this debate felt like. At every given topic, the leaders recited their given answers. People have heard Brown’s repertoire, they’ve heard Cameron’s. But not Clegg’s. He enjoyed the novelty factor. I hope he enjoys it: tonight may very well be the high point of his political career.
Can Clegg keep it up? If he does, the Lib Dems might even force Labour into third place, which would be extraordinary. In the next debate, the Lib Dem leader will lack the element of surprise and freshness that he took advantage of so effectively tonight. Cameron and Brown will also see him as a much more dangerous opponent - and will definitely go for him. On the other hand, Clegg now has some momentum and excitement behind him, and he can build on that. And the next debate will be about foreign affairs. As a multi-lingual, former Euro-MP that should be Clegg’s strong suit - although in Eurosceptic Britain, he will probably try to disguise the extent of his Europhilia.
Suddenly, this election looks interesting.