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Brown needs to win tonight

BrownTrio Labour is heading for defeat. That's the consistent message of the opinion polls for two-and-a-half years. We get far too excited about the daily movement of the opinion polls but the reality is that Labour has struggled to get above 30% in more than a very few surveys.

Despite the enormous efforts of the union movement, Labour has little money for the campaign. Huge numbers of its MPs are retiring, giving Tory candidates the advantage of not facing incumbents. Seeing the writing on the wall, big Labour beasts - led by Andrew Adonis - are whispering sweet nothings in the direction of the Liberal Democrats in the hope of staying in power in the event of their best hope, a hung parliament.

Tonight and the next two debates are Brown's last, best chances of getting back in the race. As Nick Wood blogged earlier, Labour spinmeisters are downplaying expectations and are suggesting that Brown is not performing well in debate prep. Brown won't be a disaster tonight. He'll turn up with strong lines from Mandelson, Campbell, Whelan and, I dare say, Damian McBride. These people are good at partisan politics and Brown will arrive at the lecturn weaponised.

If he's going to stop the Tories getting an overall majority he needs to win tonight. A draw is probably good enough for Cameron. It's not good enough for Brown.

FiveBenchmarks Brown winning is my first benchmark for judging tonight. He'll certainly exceed wooden spoon expectations but he really needs to win.

My second benchmark is whether Cameron takes the opportunity to be retail enough. Will he spell out, in specific terms, how viewers will benefit from a Conservative government, particularly in terms of their economic well-being?

Benchmark three: Will Cameron hit hard on the issue of immigration? The Tory leadership is underplaying the issue in this election almost as much as it was overplayed it in 2005. It's possible the issue won't come up but I'm pretty sure it will.

Benchmark four: Will David Cameron make it clear to every LibDem/Con waverer that a vote for Nick Clegg is a back door vote for Brown? The Liberals kept Labour in power in the 1970s. In the 1980s they voted with Labour 90% of the time. In the 1990s Paddy Ashdown had long negotiations with Tony Blair that would have resulted in a coalition if Labour hadn't won in 1997. Throughout the last decade they've moved left as a party, with two-thirds of their activists closer to Labour than to the centre.

My final benchmark is for ITV. Will Nick Clegg be properly scrutinised? Channel 4 almost allowed Vince Cable to be the impartial referee between Darling and Osborne in the Chancellor's debate. The same thing mustn't happen tonight.

Tim Montgomerie


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