Who won the debate?

Last night I had the privilege of being invited to a ‘party’ thrown by a leading polling company to watch the first ever British Televised Prime Ministerial Election Debate.  Yep, it was about as thrilling as it sounds.  In fact, my colleague and I left early because we couldn’t actually hear the debate over the roar of everyone else’s boredom.

The three main party leaders answered questions about their plans for different areas of domestic policy and, unlike what I’ve seen of American Presidential debates, there was actually a fair bit of interaction between the three.

Of course, there were no surprises in the questions, and thus the leaders stuck to the lines they had been carefully hammering out with their spin boys for the past weeks, leading to no real surprises in the answers.  Yet the big story today is that Nick Clegg – leader of the LibDems – won the debate.

How?  If his policies haven’t won in any of the fora they’ve been released in over the past weeks, months and years, why did they win last night?

For a start, it was never about the policies winning, but the personalities. Clegg won because he looked confident, spoke directly to the camera a lot of the time, and didn’t have any ‘points’ scored against him (though neither, particularly, did the others).

Mainly, though, he won because he was there.  The LibDems have been ‘the third party’ – and thus pretty comprehensively sidelined – for as long as they have been in existence in their current form.  For them to have made enough gains in the polls to be considered players at the table is a huge win, and Clegg being treated as one of the three main contenders last night simply underscored that point.

He won attention by being there, and that attention, the surprise factor, gained him a lot of support.  He milked it by repeatedly pointing out that he ‘wasn’t one of those two’ (Brown and Cameron), and it seems to have worked.

How that will play out in the election remains to be seen, but last night was definitely a good night for the LibDems.

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