Ten things we learned from the leaders' debate

What we learnt about the three party leaders last night.

1. The format worked

The 90-minute debate was not the "slow and sluggish" affair that David Cameron feared it might be. The show felt less stilted and stage-managed than those in the US. It's likely that the debates will become a permanent fixture of every election from now on.

2. Brown is desperate to win over Clegg

Brown's constant love-bombing of the Lib Dem leader, "I agree with Nick", was perhaps the most significant feature of the night. As I predicted, aware that he would need Clegg's support in a hung parliament, Brown concentrated his fire on Cameron. But his attempt to sell himself as a born again constitutional reformer, after 13 years in government, failed to convince.

3. And Clegg is determined to resist

Clegg said almost nothing to challenge the perception that he is equidistant between the two main parties. He spent much of the night attacking the Labservatives and, for the most part, it worked. But it's worth noting that he was prepared to follow Brown in raising Ashcroft and that he launched a radical attack on Cameron over inheritance tax.

4. Brown can hold his own

The clunking fist didn't land the knock-out blow that some hoped for but there was no "car-crash moment". The instant reaction polls almost all put Brown a distant third but given how poor his personal ratings were to start with, that's probably no surprise. Brown seemed unusually relaxed and used the only memorable line of the night: "this is not question time, it's answer time, David."

5. Cameron could be vulnerable on foreign affairs

The Tory leader's bizarre decision to bracket China with Iran as a nuclear threat was the closest thing to a gaffe all night. As Jonathan Freedland points out, in a US debate, it would be seen as a sign that the challenger was not ready to be commander-in-chief. Brown and Clegg will be confident ahead of the Sky foreign affairs debate.

6. Brown can crack jokes (just)

The prime minister raised the only thing close to a laugh all night when he told Cameron: "you can't airbrush your policies, even if you can airbrush your posters." Given that the audience aren't allowed to do much apart from laugh, the importance of humour can't be overstated.

7. Cameron has decided to avoid personal attacks

For fear of being branded Mr Angry, Cameron eschewed the sort of personal attacks on Brown that one might have expected. As the frontrunner, his strategy was to appear calm, controlled and prime ministerial. After last night, I expect this strategy will be reviewed.

8. No one is prepared to make the positive case for immigration

Depressingly, all of the party leaders competed to see who could sound toughest on immigration. Brown and Clegg made only practical, rather than principled, objections to Cameron's plan to impose a cap.

9. Cameron is still detoxifying the Tories

Cameron's decision to begin his answer on health with a a peroration of love for the NHS proves that he's still detoxifying the Tories But Clegg soon showed him up when he pointed out: "it's easy to say we love the NHS".

10. Inequality is the great unspoken issue

The UK's vast income inequality has a negative impact on every policy issue mentioned last night. But not one of the party leaders chose to highlight it.


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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.