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ConHome's expert panel assesses tonight's leaders' debate


ConservativeHome re-assembled the expert panel of political commentators for a final time to react to tonight's debate. Here's what they have to say:

Michael Dobbs Michael Dobbs - Author, journalist and former Deputy Chairman of both the Conservative Party and Saatchi & Saatchi

Oh, I think I have become suddenly partisan! There are moments when elections turn. Yesterday with Gordon Brown meeting an ordinary voter was one of them, but I think tonight might have been another.

Brown was like an old dull-screen computer which simply doesn’t understand the latest software and searches round and round within itself for the right answers but comes up with nothing but meaningless lines of code. He was dreadful. The Clunking Fist went clunk.

Clegg was sweaty, faltering. I suspect he was very tired. He came up with his prepared clichés, and simply didn’t do it well. Week One has worn off, and tonight the veneer seemed desperately thin. He was often superficial, skewered over his amnesty on illegal immigration, and damaged himself with his schoolboy jibes. Tonight’s loser.

Tonight Cameron showed poise, determination, and passion. Won the argument on schools, immigration, manufacturing. Tonight’s victor, and on this basis, next week’s Prime Minister.

Charles LewingtonCharles Lewington - Managing Director of Hanover Communications and former Press Secretary to John Major

That should do the trick! DC delivered clear messages straight into the homes of former Labour voters in key marginals on rewarding hard work, backing teachers, tackling the workshy and controlling immigration. At last, we saw pre-emptive strikes on weak Lib-Dem policy commitments – including joining the euro, hurrah!

And our shiny first round debate winner proved to be tetchy and emotional when subjected to a pincer movement on his asylum amnesty. His device of blaming others for point scoring before promptly going on to scoring points himself also began to grate.

Cameron’s biggest challenge was always going to be the need to rebut false claims about Conservative tax and spending plans and the Prime Minister was negative (and clunky) to the bitter end – unbelievably, even in his summing up statement!

Cameron made sure-footed defensive moves and answered the inheritance tax charge well. I believe that viewers would have looked at all three candidates – and decided only one could be prime Minister next week.

Sheila Gunn Sheila Gunn - Political consultant and former press adviser to John Major

Anyone expecting a decisive battle tonight will be disappointed. Let’s face it, who could compete with Mrs Gillian Duffy from Rochdale.  The winner? David Cameron – but by no more than a length.

Nick Clegg came under slightly more pressure than in the previous two debates, and it quickly showed. By the close he was looking distinctly edgy and, to put it politely, a little warm. Gordon Brown quickly tried to put yesterday’s debacle behind him. But he could not resist subjecting viewers to that smile, which the whole world now knows is totally artificial.

On too many issues – the taxes, benefits, immigration, housing or education – all three fought their own corner and had a go at each other. But did it all help sway those swing voters?  Probably not.

Michael Brown 2009 Michael Brown - Independent columnist and Conservative MP between 1979 and 1997

I thought Cameron was solid and pretty good at exposing the weaknesses of the Lib Dem manifesto.His final summary was excellent. Clegg was much more waffly while Brown used any question to hang whatever shopping list of random policies that happened to be in his mind.

The economic section was a great disappointment and all dodged the requests to specify where cuts would be made beyond priority departmental manifesto promises. I don't know who "won" - so much was a repeat of the previous two debates - and I was generally under-whelmed.

If this was Brown's great moment, Cameron has no need to worry. Still a three horse race - not much change in the polls.  

Picture 3 Nick Wood - Managing Director of Media Intelligence Partners and former Press Secretary to William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith

Not a game-changer. Cameron had his best night so far, pushing Clegg hard over his immigration amnesty, and attacking Brown over his jobs tax. Cameron was also strong over welfare reform. Not so much a lurch to the Right as a feint to the Right.

Clegg looked rattled when under sustained attack over his amnesty but still managed to play his rebel leader card. Brown, after his car crash yesterday, showed his granite resilience, swinging his bear-like paws both Left and Right.

As for cutting the deficit, we learned precious new. They are better informed in Greece. The microwave polls ranked it Cameron/Clegg/Brown, which, of course, reflects the wider figures. Cameron did not drop his Ming vase, which counts as a victory in this game.


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