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.

 

Follow the New Statesman team on Facebok.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.