Third-Party Surprise in First Ever British Televised Campaign Debates

A previously minor player changes the race

This article is from the archive of our partner .

On Thursday, Britain saw its first-ever televised debate between prime minister candidates. The two main parties' leaders--David Cameron for the Conservatives and Gordon Brown for Labour--shared the stage with Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. Many think the third-party candidate, in a surprise move, actually took the night. Yet some argue he won more through style than substance--a response echoing that in America's famed Nixon-Kennedy debate. What happened, and what does it all portend?

  • Nick Clegg Won  Both the London Times editorial board and the BBC's Michael Crick agree on that. "Until last night," writes Crick, "the question was how many seats the Liberal Democrats would lose. Now, after Nick Clegg's performance, the question is whether they will gain seats. And if so, how many?"
  • The People Won, argues David Aaronovitch, also for the Times. The debate, he says, "tells us that power has moved by one large new increment from the rulers to the ruled." How so? "Well, last night the top politicians had to appear in front of us, as they will do from now on, and we could treat them (if we desired) with X-Factor brusqueness." The debates are one step towards "British party leaders [being] chosen by primary elections, not just party members." Steve Richards at The Independent is a little milder in his assessment, though he's thinking along the same lines: "[voters'] fleeting engagement with politics will go down in history as something of a game changer in itself."
  • Cameron Lost  The Spectator's Alex Massie declares that the Conservative candidate came "third in a three horse race." That means "there's a strategic dilemma for Cameron: if polls suggest the Lib Dems are surging (an extraordinary concept I agree) then does he go after Clegg next week or does he concentrate on Brown?"
  • Substance Lost  Though the Times editors think Clegg took the night, they think he did so largely through style, not substance, where he exaggerated his points (Norman Tebbit at the Conservative-leaning Telegraph agrees: "Clegg promised the earth and got away with it"). More importantly, though, say the Times folks, "no man really touched on the big argument in this election, between a larger and smaller State. That fundamental difference in philosophies could and should have electrified this debate. It should be electrifying the country. It is not clear why it was not centre stage. It should be: it is the national debate."
  • Hung Parliament Became More Likely  With the new three-way nature of the race due to Clegg's performance, the BBC's Michael Crick points out that a so-called "hung" parliament, i.e. a parliament in which no party has a true majority, thus requiring either coalition government or constant compromise, is more likely.
  • And Race Became More Desperate  "Tories need to knock out Nick Clegg," proclaims Julian Glover in the Guardian. Tom Clark, looking at poll numbers after the debates, wonders if Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrats "could wipe out Labour."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.