Following the first leaders’ debate on ITV tonight, Nick Clegg took 46% in the ComRes poll (Clegg 46, Cameron 26, Brown 20) — as much as Brown and Cameron put together. In the YouGov poll he took 51 points against Cameron 29 and Brown 19. There were, of course, a number of unscientific polls conducted on newspaper websites, but they do nothing more than reflect their readers’ opinions. The real, scientific, polls are unequivocal.
If this were replicated in an election (of course, it won’t be, but the illustration is still valid), it would result, according to the BBC website’s calculator, in 530 seats for the Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons — a majority of 410 seats: a landslide beyond all conception and all precedent.
Liberal Democrats were, of course, looking for Clegg to make up ground tonight. Brown is generally considered to be undervalued and Cameron overvalued, a view not supported by tonight’s public response. Conventional wisdom suggested that Clegg needed to be up with the others, and it would do Lib Dems good because of the exposure. But the scale of the Nick Clegg result was absolutely devastating: an absolute majority of votes in one poll, an equal vote with the other two parties combined in the other.
Where did the debate landslide victory come from?
There were three factors, I think.
First, Nick Clegg made a point of answering the question. I followed the BBC comments page while watching the debate, and — leaving aside the obviously partisan comments — this was commented on again and again. He not only answered the question, but made a point of looking at and referring to the questioner to see if they thought he was answering the questions. Brown famously jibed at Cameron ‘this is answer time, not question time’, and, certainly, Cameron’s unwillingness to give an actual answer told against him. But Brown’s own attempts fell flat as well. My feeling is that Brown really was trying to answer the questions from time to time, but he was held up by his own opaque language: beginning a sentence with “Net inward immigration…” three times does not make for a good connection with viewers.
Second, the Lib Dem manifesto published this week was a clear winner in terms of the power it gave to Clegg over the other two. The manifesto sets out in detail exactly what the Lib Dems would spend and what they would save. Neither Labour nor the Tories — as Clegg pointed out — included figures in their manifestos. Cameron tried to have a bit of a go about the figures, but it is never easy to argue with a man on his own turf: Clegg knew his manifesto and his figures much better than Cameron did, and Brown made no attempt to overturn the Lib Dem figures at all.
Third, Nick Clegg positioned his two opponents very clearly in his own address as the ‘same old same old parties’. The bickering between Brown and Cameron which followed underlined that again and again. Clegg certainly benefited from the game that Brown and Cameron tried to play. They were almost deferential in their treatment of him, and when Cameron did attempt to question Clegg, it fell rather flat, especially on immigration, which should have been his strongest suit. Brown again and again tried to say that he and Clegg were agreeing. Unfortunately for him, Clegg refused to play along. This was all especially important because, at Prime Minister’s Question Time, the bulk of Tory/Labour jeers are often enough to drown out Clegg’s comments. In a studio, with a studio audience and clear rules, this extraneous factor was taken away.
What difference will all this make? That remains to be seen — over the next few days, as the pundits weave their theories, and as the spin-doctors from left and right attempt to demonstrate (as William Hague is already attempting) that, despite all the opinion polls, their candidate won after all.
There may be more polls tomorrow, and they may give a different result. But, for now, based on this debate only, and without any particular connection with other realities, the result is a clearer victory for Nick Clegg than any Liberal Democrat could have hoped for.