I was in Birmingham yesterday in a Starbucks on the university campus with Radio 5 Live and their invited audience to watch the final leaders' debate. Then afterwards I was on a panel on air until after midnight discussing how things had gone.
I must admit as the debate finished I would have just given it to Clegg by a nose. I thought the way he handled being berated from both sides about immigration was very good and that he explained the policy very clearly. There were also other very good moments and he kept mentioning the £10K tax threshold which is absolutely right to underline to people who may not have watched the other debates how they would be better off. However I also knew that Cameron had done well. He seemed very confident and was effective at firing questions at the other two leaders, especially Clegg. I am sorry to say that by the end Brown seemed like a diminished figure. One of the last things he said sounded to me like he was basically conceding that he has lost the election.
As it turns out though the instant polls following the debate all gave it to Cameron. Some by a fair way but there were a couple where it was pretty close between Cameron and Clegg with one of them actually tying them in the lead. The averages of all 5 polls I saw were Cameron 38%, Clegg 32% and Brown 26%. I think Clegg did better than that suggests but of course I am biased.
So now that the debates are over there are just the final few days of the campaign. As I said on the very lively radio show afterwards (which you can listen to here on iPlayer for the next few days) taken as a whole, the 3 debates have been a stunning success for the Lib Dems. We are now averaging around 30% in the polls rather than around 21% or 22% just before them two and a bit weeks ago. Given an equivalent platform to the other two leaders, people have warmed to Clegg and the things he has to say.
One thing is certain in my mind. After the 2010 election, any future campaigns will have to include debates like this. Students of the future will study these few weeks when the nature of UK general election campaigning changed irrevocably.