There was a lot of discussion prior to the series of three television debates involving the three main party leaders on what impact they would have in this election. And the answer would appear to be that their importance has been greater than anyone predicted.
Nick Clegg and his party have been the clear beneficiaries so far, seeing their opinion poll ratings reaching unexpected highs. David Cameron may well have expected great success, but it hasn’t happened. And Gordon Brown always knew that he wouldn’t come across as well as his challengers, although he hoped that his mastery of details would sustain his support.
But going into tonight’s final debate all was still to play for in an election that could yet produce no clear winner. A hung parliament, some form of deal between two or more parties or even a second election were still possibilities.
Clegg has seen his poll boost fade slightly, so tonight he will have been looking for another good performance to take into the last few days of the campaign. Would he be able to make as much of an impact as he did in the first debate?
Cameron knows his party is ahead, but still not likely to take an overall majority. He too will have been looking to perform well in order to take that final step. But could he persuade the public that he is a potential Prime Minister?
Brown would have planned to turn attention away from his widely publicised remarks about a supporter that definitely damaged his chances. And with the debate focusing on his strongest area, the economy, could he persuade the electorate that he is indeed a man of substance?
Here’s what happened tonight in Birmingham, live on the BBC.
The opening statements saw David Cameron start with his favourite word: change. Rewarding work, tacking benefit fraud and promoting manufacturing were also mentioned, as was keeping the pound.
Nick Clegg also resorted to his favourite themes: new, fair, innovative and different. Fair tax and economic growth are the goals, and families are most important
Gordon Brown started by acknowledging his recent mistake but majored on his key role in the economic crisis and argued that only he could continue the recovery, while his opponents’ policies risked ruin for Britain.
The first question asked for details on spending cuts. Clegg said that major savings on government projects allied to more tax for the rich are required, as efficiency savings are not enough. Brown wants growth to be funded by tax rises for the rich and spending cuts, but protecting health, education and police from any reductions. He also stressed that immediate cuts would damage recovery. Cameron talked of protecting services but made no real commitments. He would have a public sector pay freeze and add a year on the retirement age, as well as making efficiency savings.
Next was tax. Brown recognised that times were tough. He also reminded the audience that his government had reduced basic rate tax while increasing higher rates and introduced the tax credit system. Cameron talked of government waste and pledged again to reverse Labour’s National Insurance rise. Clegg talked of a fairer tax system, attacking Labour for not doing more over its term of government.
Bonuses for bankers were attacked by all. Cameron wants more banking regulation by the Bank of England and a banking levy. He also wants high street banks to restrict their risk taking. Clegg called for no bonuses to be paid to top bankers at all and stated that loss making banks should give no bonuses to anyone. Brown reminded us of his actions to save the banking system, and also to recoup government money paid to the banks. He wants a global solution to levies.
How would the leaders rebuild Britain’s manufacturing industry? Clegg called for more bank lending, investment for the future and jobs for young people. Brown stressed that investment in new technologies for the future was supported by the government and defended the role of Regional Development Agencies. Cameron called for more apprenticeships, better use of training budgets and low tax for business.
The following questioner asked whether politicians are removed from the concerns of the public, especially on immigration. Brown talked of his links to his local community in his constituency, curbs on immigration in some industries and training for young people to make them more competitive in the job market. Cameron called for curbs on immigration, particularly from new EU countries, claiming that this would make community integration easier. Clegg stated that the immigration system was chaotic and needed to be overhauled, as well as a regional approach to settling immigrants.
Helping families in the housing market was next. Cameron repeated calls for tax cuts and also called for more house building. Clegg wants empty properties reused as family homes. Brown has already cut stamp duty, called for more shared equity schemes and more mortgage lending.
Abuses of the benefits system was next. Clegg talked about incentives for work to remove the benefit trap. Brown talked of compelling the long term unemployed into work or training and the positive benefits of work. Cameron said much of the same.
The final question was on opportunities for children in deprived areas. Brown talked of helping families through nursery education and tax credits, while also recognising that some children need more help in school to achieve their potential. Cameron stressed supporting teachers, increasing discipline in schools and allowing new organisations to run schools. Clegg pledged £2.5b to raise opportunities for the poorest children in order to bridge the gap in achievement with better off children.
In the final statements Cameron stressed family values and saw an optimistic future for the country under his leadership. Clegg called for a better and fairer society that the old parties could not deliver. And Brown emphasised the difference between the parties, especially on tax, and argued that only his experience and stated policies could lead the country to economic prosperity.
Can any clear conclusions be dawn form this debate?
Nick Clegg performed well again and his appeal to families will have resonated. He overused the word fair, but will have scored on calls for a different type of approach to politics. And he explained his tax policies very clearly, emphasising the benefits for the lower paid. But his explanation of an amnesty for illegal immigrants is unlikely to have down well.
David Cameron evaded several questions and resorted to typical Tory rhetoric: Keep the pound, not the Euro. Reduce welfare benefits. Reduce government. He attacked Labour’s record but was weak on alternatives beyond tackling government inefficiency, and looked very uncomfortable at times. Overall it was not a good performance.
Gordon Brown performed well and showed great command of the economic arguments. He will have enhanced his position as the serious and statesmanlike candidate. Some of Brown’s jabs hit Cameron squarely too. He talked of ideology being put before recovery and of Cameron repeating past Tory mistakes by taking money out of the economy and jeopardising recovery.
All of the leaders were keen to point out policy differences where they could, which will assist some voters to make up their minds. They directly questioned and challenged each other. They disagreed with passion and conviction. This was a real debate rather than a tv spectacle.
The economy is the issue most often cited as the key issue and Gordon Brown made a strong case for the importance of his experience in government. Cameron and Clegg didn’t make the type of impact they would have hoped for on his record.
The next set of opinion polls will be very interesting. Cameron won’t see the increase in support he needs to make an outright victory possible. And the perceived likelihood of a hung parliament will now bring tactical voting very much into play.
This means all parties will now be making a major push to maximise their vote in the time they have remaining. Every seat will count when it finally comes to working out just what the next government will look like.
There is only a week to go until election day. And there are many votes still up for grabs.