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Third Time’s the Charm for Cameron

From 538’s Dan Berman and Renard Sexton

This election always promised something different from past British Campaigns. If not for the economic travails, seen similarly in 1974 and 1931, the introduction of American-style televised debates promised to shake things up. The brainchild of the Conservative campaign, which hoped to extend David Cameron’s rhetorical dominance from the small-market Prime Minister’s Questions to an hour long program that would be watched by millions, the Conservative campaign pushed fiercely for three debates, in the process, forgetting the adage you sometimes get exactly what you asked for.

The lesson from the United States is that frontrunners disdain debates, no matter their skill, because the unexpected has a bad habit of happening.

This time around it was the Tories who first suffered, as anti-politician and anti-incumbent public opinion drove substantial number to shift their soft Conservative votes to a new option. The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg presented a “third way,” with seemed fresh and free of baggage. For centrist voters, Gordon Brown spoke for tired government with a record he could not well defend, while Cameron seemingly threatened a surreptitious reawakening of the worst aspects of the Thatcher years. As a result, the forceful but measured Clegg skated by, and the Liberal Democrats leapt into national contention.

The reaction of the other parties was initially confused. Labour first encouraged the surge, hoping it would hurt the Conservatives in key constituencies, while the Conservatives hoped it would split the Labour vote.

Both believed it would be a temporary bump and that as policy positions became clearer, fickle Lib Dem sympathizers would soon be ripe for the picking. The second debate was to be the forum, where Liberal Democratic views on defense and Europe would come under scrutiny. However, a rather strong performance from Brown, in which he allied with Cameron at one point and with Clegg another, and the dissension of the first third of the debate into a nonsense discussion of the Pope and anti-climate change home renovations by the leaders prevented a clear winner, though each landed a few good blows.

With the now three-way race seemingly wide open just a week before the polls open, the stakes were high for the third and final debate Thursday night. If not completely decisive, the third debate had the feeling of finality that the second lacked. This time, in a debate one economic policy, Clegg was left behind as Brown and Cameron went at it.

It seems that Clegg’s vacillation over the weekend as to who he would back in a hung parliament was at least part of his undoing. In the second debate he had been able to pretend that he was a serious contender for the big chair, confidently stating that the Liberal Democrats in power would do this or change that. The coalition discussions ended that. By the time of the third debate, it was clear that though one man on the stage would end up Prime Minister, it would not be Clegg.

This was seen even in the camera angles. Whereas previously they had zoomed on Clegg even when others were speaking, this time Cameron got the close-up treatment, as he brimmed with confidence. Clegg also suffered from the shift in issues that Gordon Brown had inadvertently triggered by calling a grandmother a “bigot” the previous day when she had complained on immigration. Cameron summarily laid into Clegg for his support for amnesty for illegal immigrants, and unlike in the second debate when he had defended Clegg, Brown joined in, accusing Clegg of lying about the Liberal Democratic platform. The combination of being ignored in the first third, being combined against in the second, and again being ignored in the third hurt Clegg badly.

Instant polls uniformly showed Cameron winning, with the exception of one which showed him tied with Clegg on 38%. Most polls put Clegg second, save one with Brown ahead of Clegg. It seemed that Cameron had finally hit his stride last night, neutralizing Clegg, and Brown generally neutralizing himself. The Conservatives may not quite win a majority, though that is starting to look more likely than previously, but they seem clearly set for a comfortable win in votes and seats.

This article was co-authored by research assistant Daniel Berman and international affairs columnist Renard Sexton. Please send comments or suggestions to