Last night’s debate on Sky News saw the three party leaders battle it out on international affairs for the first half, and general issues for the second. The event was regarded as crucial in either solidifying or crushing Clegg’s surge in popularity. Polls taken on the night suggested that both Clegg and Cameron were the winners of the debate, with the former holding his own and the latter vastly improving upon his first performance. There has been little mention of Brown in the press coverage of the debate; it’s worrying that the prime minister is third wheeling at present.
As predicted, this time round Clegg was in the firing line. He slightly unravelled when pressed on his nuclear disarmament plans; Brown pointed out that despite the expense, the UK can’t make a move toward disarmament unless other countries agree to do the same. At one point, he even accused the Lib Dem leader of being weak for not proposing adequate security plans. Cameron actually found he could agree with the PM on the nuclear issue – a touching moment!
And the Churchill-come-Nazi leader (note names awarded to the Lib Dem leader by sensationalist media) stumbled again on the subject of immigration. His party’s policy of granting amnesty to illegal immigrants was met with opposition from Brown and Cameron, with the PM complaining that it would encourage illegal immigration and that these people should be deported, and the opposition leader putting forward the case for a cap on numbers.
Although last night Nick Clegg didn’t trip up too much on Europe and generally held his nerve, he had to contend with a much more confident Cameron and a less friendly Brown this time round. Yet his popularity hasn’t greatly waned. Regardless of whether you look at the polls reporting Cameron was the winner or the ones claiming Clegg clinched victory, it’s true to say that the Lib Dems have become a viable third party in the eyes of the British electorate. Their leader hasn’t suffered from “second-album syndrome” and has reinforced the notion that he is a serious contender in the race for the premiership by his performance in the second debate.
Interestingly, what Nick Clegg actually says in the debates has been considered of little importance by analysts, who instead have commented on his body language, gesturing and eye contact with the cameras. Many thought Cameron would be the new Blair in this election, but Clegg has well and truly stolen this role from him and emerged victorious in the style stakes.
If we have learned anything from the televised presidential debates in the States, the smallest things can have a significant impact: Nixon’s ill appearance, George Bush Senior glancing at his watch, McCain refusing to look at Obama. The image of Cameron and Brown bickering is similarly powerful. These men represent the “old politics”, while Clegg professes to be the man capable of delivering “new politics”. David Cameron can use the word “change” as much as he likes, but actions speak louder than words.