Brown’s final smile straight out of Mad Magazine

Peter Stead says Leaders Debates are now a permanent fixture of general elections

The third debate was by far the best. The three leaders had time to develop points and to counter their opponents. They were able to focus on basics and they all displayed passion as they clearly defined something of their distinctive ideologies and considerably more of their campaign strategies.

This 2010 innovation had finally proved its worth and will now undoubtedly form the core of every future general election.  If nothing else the debates have highlighted the puerile nature of Parliamentary Questions in the House of Commons and of parliamentary behaviour in general. The public needs to be treated in an adult fashion.

However, the format is far from perfect. A UK general election is not a presidential contest and a way has to be found to reflect that fact. There should be debates of equal status in the devolved nations and questioners in the audience must be allowed to enter the debate. In at least one debate the questions should be put and the issues debated with members of the press.  The debates should reflect the team leadership of the parties. If the Tories win can you name the five or six key figures who will dominate the cabinet and its vital committees? In one debate the parties should be represented by female leaders.

Now that the three debates are over, we should all recognise how well the three leaders performed. Live television is not easy, especially when there is no sofa to support you and no adjacent interviewer to hold your eyes. Neither is it easy to be yourself when you have been shoehorned into a format and force-fed with statistics, slogans and body-language tips. Quite remarkably there were to be no gaffes, no embarrassments and no trickles of perspiration.  Last night that shiny spot on David Cameron’s chin that the makeup person had missed was initially an irritating distraction but that was soon forgotten.

David Cameron was clearly the winner on the night. He was a totally different man from the one who had looked so ill at ease two weeks ago. His demeanour was utterly prime ministerial and he looked fresh and fit and dressed ready to go to the Palace. He just ignored all the points put to him by his opponents having realised that coolness was now of the essence.

Nick Clegg remains the most reasonable and accessible of the leaders but this was the performance of an opposition leader and not a man expecting to be given the keys of No. 10 in seven day’s time. Gordon Brown’s performance was magnificent in the way of a veteran heavyweight boxing champion as he tires in the fifteenth round of his last fight. He looked awful, he clearly hadn’t slept a wink and the final smile was straight out of Mad Magazine.

All three leaders will feel confident that they had identified the essence of their message. Nick Clegg has lots of ideas that will appeal to young people and young professionals. David Cameron wants to roll back the state and give enterprise a chance.

Gordon Brown’s appeal was to his traditional supporters and to all those for whom 1945 defined the core values of Britishness. He has pinned all his hopes on getting out his loyal heartland followers. Will that be enough to save him?  And has he any answer to Cameron’s charge that “you have had thirteen years to put things right”? Thirteen years that have all too obviously taken their toll.

Peter Stead is an historian, cultural commentator and Agenda columnist.

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