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,
- 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
- 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.