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15 April 2011

The first TV leaders’ debate: one year on

How the debates changed British politics for ever.

By George Eaton

It’s a year to the day since the first TV leaders’ debate, the event that transformed Nick Clegg from the little-known leader of the Liberal Democrats into the head of a revolt against the Labour-Tory duopoly. At the start of the election campaign, journalists were fond of asking, “Who’s that man with Vince Cable?” It was a question we never heard after 15 April 2010.

“Cleggmania” would not last, and the Lib Dem leader has since squandered much goodwill by reversing his stance on spending cuts, the VAT rise and tuition fees, but the debates still changed British politics in important ways. They institutionalised three-party politics, making hung parliaments more likely in the future. And, by forcing the Conservatives to fight a war on two fronts, they helped prevent a Tory majority.

David Cameron’s decision to agree to the three-way leaders’ debates (under significant pressure from the Murdoch empire) is now widely acknowledged as one of his biggest mistakes. Nigel Lawson, for instance, recently said:

They should have got an overall majority and they didn’t because they made a number of mistakes. One was agreeing to the three-way television debates. There was no way the country was going to elect Nick Clegg, so it should have been simply between Cameron and Brown.

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But Clegg’s success also cost the Lib Dems, as activists hubristically campaigned in unwinnable seats and neglected key marginals. The party won just 57 seats, five fewer than in 2005.

Not many now remember Cameron’s warning that the debates might be “slow and sluggish“. In fact, they were far less stilted and stage-managed than those in the United States. A general election campaign without them is now unthinkable. They will, I fear, hugely increase the presidentialisation of British politics, but in a modern democracy, voters both deserve and expect a live debate between the party leaders.