By Michael Collins

The third and final debate between the British party leaders will play a critical role in selecting the next Prime Minister. The first debate altered the course of the election, for a few days anyway. The Liberal Democrats led by Nick Clegg passed Labour’s Gordon Brown and moved ahead of the Conservative’s David Cameron. It looked like a trend.

The second debate changed all of that. Gordon Brown, the current Prime Minister, took deliberate aim at Clegg and Cameron dismissing them as though they were foppish boulevardiers stalling the progress of his carriage. “You remind me of my two young boys at bath time,” he chided. He also delivered the lash on several occasions when he accused Clegg of being “anti American” and a threat to Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Cameron got off a bit lighter as a threat to Great Britain’s relationship with the rest of the European Union.

The roughhouse tactics by Labour’s Prime Minister (who lost an eye playing rugby) had an effect. By tonight’s debate, the Liberal Democrat’s ascendancy was stalled and the once high flying Conservatives were nowhere near their 43% figure before the first debate. The Sydney Morning Herald analyzed the polls this way: “many voters have not made up their minds and will only do so when they enter the booths next Thursday.”

The Debate - The Economy

If the debate were judged on overall presentation and polished delivery, Conservative David Cameron was the clear winner. His opening statement reprized President Obama’s campaign themes as he said “our economy is stuck in a rut and we need change to get it going.” He spoke of the need to “fix our banks … get them lending again” and the task of “making things in our economy.”

Liberal Democrat Clegg sounded like the Robert Redford character in The Candidate (“For a better way”) when he said “I think we’ve got to do things differently.”

The battered Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a substantive point that he repeated several times: “Support the economy now and you will insure there are jobs and a recovery … shrink the economy now as the Conservatives would do and they risk your jobs, your living standards, and tax credits.”

The debate was divided into sections based on questions from audience members at the Great Hall of the University of Birmingham. As the debate unfolded, it was apparent that Conservative Cameron and Labour’s Brown were the main combatants. Brown warned of return to the disastrous policies of the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Cameron kept busy co-opting themes from the Obama campaign and avoiding Brown’s repeated questions on specifics. Clegg was oddly reticent in light of branding himself as something different and better in British politics. A pattern emerged.

Clegg’s Grand Betrayal

Clegg revealed what I’m calling the grand betrayal early on while discussing budget cuts. His solution was process based. It was time “for once to get the politicians working together on this. I don’t know whether David Cameron and Gordon Brown want to take up my invitation.” This statement was made with urgent sincerity even though Clegg had indicated just days before that he would form a coalition government with the Conservatives but not with Labour.

What would Brown’s incentive be to work with Clegg when he’d already made up his mind that the Conservatives were the preferred party to rule (Cameron leads in the polls and, presumably, would be able to form a government with the Liberal Democrats). Why would Clegg need to work with Labour considering the super majority that the proposed coalition would bring? Could Clegg actually believe that Cameron’s Conservatives, the arch enemy of Labour, would even allow it?

Brown pointed out that both Cameron and Clegg were ready to cut the “child tax credit” at a time when it was needed more than ever. Clegg and Cameron failed to respond.

Brown raised the issue of Conservative proposals for inheritance tax breaks for the “richest 3000” citizens. “It’s simply unfair and immoral,” Brown challenged. Cameron failed to explain this position despite several direct questions by Brown. Clegg was largely silent.

When Brown argued that “The biggest beneficiary of the Conservative manifesto are the richest in this country” Once again, Clegg was on the sidelines with little to say.

When Brown warned against “same old Conservative party of the 1930’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s,” Clegg demurred.

A questioner asked what would be done about people relying on unemployment benefits, Brown’s responded that the first order of business was to create enough jobs to provide employment. Cameron criticized “welfare dependency” by beneficiaries and Clegg said that welfare benefits promoting “greater dependency on state.”

Brown said, “I’m interested in social mobility.” Neither of the challengers had anything to say about that. It was as though the jobs and fairness they both spoke of had nothing to do with economic class.

Brown told Cameron and Clegg: “You’re not telling us that a million people would lose coverage under both of your proposals.” The two showed unity in their silence.

After cleverly branding the Liberal Democrats as something different, an alternative to the old parties, Clegg surged in popularity after the first debate. Brought down to earth after the second appearance and greater scrutiny, Clegg then revealed his true colors.

Proposing an alignment with the party of Margaret Thatcher and her latest political heir is a betrayal of the image that Clegg advanced from the start of his campaign.

In the Liberal Democrat’s Manifesto, Clegg opens by asking this question: “Doesn’t it make you angry that after 65 years of red-blue government, a child’s chances in life are still more determined by their parents’ bank balance than by their own hopes and dreams?” But when Brown said that he was “‘passionate about opportunities for children,” the Liberal Democrat offered little support.

How angry will the Clegg supporters be when he joins the enemies of the National Health Service, social welfare, and jobs programs in the midst of a severe recession?

A senior campaign official with Labour summed up what may be the outcome of this election.

Lord Mandelson, Labour’s election strategist, immediately warned in a campaign memo that “voters who flirt with Nick Clegg are likely to end up married to David Cameron” April 25


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Previously: British Elections: The Leaders’ Debate - Foreign Affairs