First TV debate: three-party politics is born

+ Clegg impressive + No killer blow + Anticlimax.

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Maybe it was nerves; maybe it was because it was a new experience; maybe it was because of the inward-looking nature of British politics, especially when aired by a populist channel that began with an orgy of right-wing populism on immigration and crime. Whatever the cause, tonight's debate was -- perhaps inevtiably after the hype -- an anti-climax.

No leader landed a knockout blow. There was no breaking up the format. No leader said anything new (though Nick Clegg's unforced raising of the Trident issue was an interesting gamble). Viewers may be looking to the next debate for the real excitement.

However, there was -- broadly -- a clear winner tonight: Clegg seemed the calmest of the three leaders and also the most reasonable. Finally, the Liberal Democrats have appeared before the electorate as runners in a three-way race. And Clegg will have done much to ingratiate himself, especially on political reform.

The right-wing auction on immigration, especially, and to a lesser extent crime, was as depressing as it was, on reflection, predictable. But once the debate moved on to the economy and the National Health Service, the leaders became more identifiably themselves.

Brown was the only one who got a couple of good gags in -- thanking Cameron and Lord Ashcroft for plastering his smiling face around the country; saying Cameron could "airbrush" his posters but not his policies -- but they were oddly timed, and delivered in a flat atmosphere.

The most notable substantial point in the debate was the way in which Brown repeatedly flirted with Nick Clegg; and the way -- for the most part -- Clegg resisted his advances. Brown kept saying that "Nick" would agree with him about this and that, but Clegg, the man who says he is "equidistant" from the two other main parties, sought to portray Labour and the Tories as being in the same bracket. "The more they attack each other, the more they sound the same," he said.

Also significant was that David Cameron looked relaxed when Brown was speaking, but seemed unnerved -- almost shifty -- when fluent Clegg was making his case. More and more, the Liberal Democrats are emerging as a force in this election -- much more so than was expected a few months ago.

Tonight's debate, if we're honest, was pretty dull. But paradoxically, this election now seems more open than ever.


James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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