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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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.