David Cameron began the second televised leaders debate of the British election with a lot to prove. Just two weeks to go and he is not doing as well as he needs if he is to ensure an overall majority on May 6th. For Cameron, the debate was meant to be an opportunity for him to capture some momentum and to put to bed the fantasy that the newly popular Liberal leader, Nick Clegg, could perhaps form the next government.
For Clegg, he could either build on the momentum he secured following last weeks debate or begin to lose ground. Gordon Brown, the hapless Labour leader who has been practicing smiling and learning not to be funny, sought to display his foreign statesman credentials as a way of trying to stall his inevitable demise.
Both Cameron and Brown sought to attack Clegg, Clegg came out the winner in the last debate and the task on this occasion was to bruise, blast and belittle the Liberal leader. He was not helped this week by the disclosure that some significant financial donations to his party were paid directly into his own bank account. He did, however, hold his own and came out well.
Clegg is articulate, insightful, funny and smart. Words that we could also use to describe Cameron. The difference between Cameron and Clegg is that no one expected Clegg to do so well and everyone was looking to Cameron to shine. Cameron was dull when compared to expectations and Clegg shone against the lack of expectation.
Nothing happened on this occasion to shift opinion. The debate was, if anything, solid and dull. The opinion polls will not be radically impacted by the debate this time round. There is one more debate next week, just seven days before polling which could be more important.
The big winner is television. Despite the fear of voter apathy and alienation, viewers have tuned-in in very large numbers to watch at least some of these debates. The fact that the first made history – both for the very fact of it occurring and for the impact Nick Clegg had – reinforced the importance of television.
The election outcome is still too close to call. What Clegg also did this week was to up-the ante on any post-election horse trading if there is a hung parliament – he is demanding immediate action on proportional representation as a condition of his support for either of the other parties. He is also making clear his expectation that support involves more of a coalition that, as with Canada, tacit support through parliamentary voting agreements. The real election result may not be known for some days after voting on May 6th.