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|Clegg wins the TV war of words - and moves Britain even closer to a hung parliament |
The prospect of a hung parliament moved a giant step closer today after Nick Clegg emerged as the big winner in last night’s TV debate.
Instant polls suggested Gordon Brown’s aggressive stance, which saw him repeatedly interrupting and challenging Tory leader David Cameron, was a big turn-off for voters.
Mr Cameron, who had the most to lose with the Tories leading in the polls, looked nervous, although managed to keep his cool.
But while the two main leaders clashed repeatedly, it was the clear speaking Lib Dem leader who emerged as the clear victor.
If the overall positive verdict on Mr Clegg’s performance translates into a boost in support for his party at the polls, it makes a hung Parliament - which economists warn could be a disaster for Britain - much more likely.
Mr Clegg could play kingmaker in such a scenario.
Portraying himself as an ’outsider’, he told the audience: ’Don’t let them tell you that the only choice is between two old parties who have been playing pass-the-parcel with your government for ages. Give real change a chance.’
Demonstrating a clear understanding of the new medium, Mr Clegg looked straight at the camera, kept one hand in his pocket to appear relaxed and repeatedly used the names of the audience members asking the questions, something which was copied by his rivals.
Former Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown claimed: ’There’s a touch of the Obama about him.’
He added: ’No triumphalism, this is serious stuff now - they are going to go for us, you watch.
’Nick Clegg last night made this a three-way race. Last night potentially was a game-changer,’ Lord Ashdown said.
Viewers, disillusioned with politics after the expenses scandal, warmed to his deliberate pitch as an alternative to the mainstream parties.
An instant poll by ITV News found that 43 per cent of voters thought Mr Clegg had come out on top, with Mr Cameron second on 26 per cent and Mr Brown last on 20 per cent.
Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg equalled each other on who was most trusted to make cuts to public services, with each on 36 per cent, and the Prime Minister on 28 per cent.
The Tory leader won on the issue of immigration, backed by 37 per cent of voters, compared to 35 per cent for Mr Clegg and 20 per cent for Mr Brown.
A YouGov poll for The Sun gave Mr Clegg an even bigger overall lead, putting him on 51 per cent, Mr Cameron on 29 per cent and Brown on 19 per cent.
But a Populus poll found a massive 61 per cent of voters thought Mr Clegg had won, 22 per cent Mr Cameron, and 17 per cent Mr Brown.
Though Mr Clegg was seen to have won the debate, voters appeared unimpressed by his credentials as a potential PM.
Despite Mr Brown’s disappointing poll results, Home Secretary Alan Johnson said today the debate was not the ’game changer’ the Prime Minister needed: ’Last night what most commentators were saying was that Gordon, because he is not a song and dance man, the kind of televisual stuff, it doesn’t come naturally to him, Clegg and Cameron much more adept, Cameron with his PR background that he would take the prizes.
’I think Gordon took the prize on substance, Clegg on style. He outstyled Cameron but it was good for politics in general.’
He added: ’What we saw last night is Cameron is not good under pressure and faced with that, it was a different kind of Cameron we saw last night to the one we usually see where his sleeves are rolled up, where everything is pre-arranged and it is a kind of PR stunt.’
But Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove said today that Labour supporters would be the ’most disappointed’ with the performance of their leader: ’Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg came across as fresh, attractive and different, and I think both of them performed with a degree of assurance.
’Nick Clegg I think benefits from being the new kid on the block and with novelty comes curiosity. But also with novelty will come now increased scrutiny.’
Mr Cameron stole a march on his rivals as the debate opened with an apology for the expenses scandal that shattered trust in politics.
But the early exchanges of the debate in Manchester focused on immigration, which has been dubbed the election question which ’dares not speak its name’.
Though Britain is on course to have a population of 70million by the year 2029 because of soaring net immigration, the main parties have largely avoided highlighting the issue.
Mr Cameron said immigration had ’got out of control and does need to be brought back under control’, highlighting a pledge in this week’s Tory manifesto to get it back down to levels of the 1990s, meaning a cut of around 75 per cent.
Mr Brown shot back: ’I do not like these words because we are bringing it under control.’
The Tory leader was assailed by several aggressive attacks from the Prime Minister. In one such assault, Mr Brown demanded: ’Be honest with the public. You can’t airbrush your policies, even if you can air-brush your posters. This is not question time, it’s answer time, David.’
The Prime Minister also made repeated overtures to Mr Clegg. He said several times, on varying issues: ’I agree with Nick.’
But Mr Clegg spurned his advances, saying the Lib Dems offered ’something different’ from the ’old politics’ of the two main parties. Mr Cameron took a consensual approach, conceding that not everything Labour had done over the past 13 years had been wrong. ’But we need change, and it’s that change that I want to help to lead,’ he added.
On several occasions, the Prime Minister laughed and shook his head while Mr Cameron was speaking. An attempt at humour - in which he thanked the Tories for featuring smiling pictures of him on billboard posters - fell flat, although Mr Brown laughed warmly.
Mr Brown broke the rules agreed between the parties when he plunged off the stage at the end of the debate, furiously pumping hands with audience members.
As Mr Clegg attempted to follow suit, Mr Cameron grasped the Liberal Democrat leader’s sleeve at the elbow and briefly held him back.
Mr Brown urged voters to focus on the economy, insisting: ’These are no ordinary times, and this is no ordinary election.’
Getting the economic decisions wrong, he said, risked a ’double-dip’ recession. Mr Cameron insisted it was madness to put off cutting wasteful spending until 2011 while putting up National Insurance.
’Cut the waste, stop the tax, that’s the right answer,’ he said.
After the debate, Shadow Chancellor George Osborne said: ’Gordon Brown was attacking, attacking, attacking and I don’t think that is what the public want to see. David was very positive and upbeat.’
Lord Mandelson, who took charge of Labour’s spin operation yesterday, said Mr Brown had ’shown himself very comfortable and at ease with this format’.
The second debate takes place next Thursday on Sky News.
Last edited by Phil Beacall