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Gordon Brown of the Labour Party, David Cameron of the Conservative Party and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrat Party await the beginning of Britain's first televised general election debate April 15, 2010, in Manchester, England. (Getty Images)
Gordon Brown of the Labour Party, David Cameron of the Conservative Party and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrat Party await the beginning of Britain's first televised general election debate April 15, 2010, in Manchester, England. (Getty Images)

Relative unknown stars in British leaders debate Add to ...

Television, as North Americans learned 50 years ago and the voters of Britain had to wait until Thursday night to fully discover, can change political fortunes.

After 90 minutes of surprisingly polite and congenial sparring in the country's first televised leaders debate, many Britons seemed to shift their electoral views decisively in advance of the May 6 election. But the result was not a knockout for Prime Minister Gordon Brown or his Conservative challenger, David Cameron.

British networks, anticipating such a coup de grâce, had spent the day replaying clips of a young John F. Kennedy demolishing an awkward-looking Richard Nixon in the 1960 television debate that launched the genre, speculating that 43-year-old Mr. Cameron might play Kennedy to the 59-year-old Prime Minister's Nixon.

With his Conservative Party leading in the polls all year, but perpetually falling short of the support needed for a majority government, the historic debate was considered vital to Mr. Cameron's fortunes, a chance to show that his youthful exuberance is not simply a flighty rootlessness. Mr. Brown needed to turn his plodding and methodical image into one of gravity and experience.

Both succeeded modestly. But by the end of a TV event that was watched by more than half of Britain's voters, there was no question that the overwhelming star of the evening was Nick Clegg, the relatively unknown leader of Britain's traditional third-place party, the Liberal Democrats.

Exit polls by several networks and firms showed between 50 and 60 per cent of voters declaring him the winner, against results below 30 per cent for both Mr. Brown and Mr. Cameron.

With a "plague on both your houses" message that only a never-elected centrist party can deliver and a televisual style that made him the only leader to pitch his message beyond the room directly to the viewing audience, Mr. Clegg, 43, seemed to rise dramatically above the fray of Britain's shopworn Tory-Labour debate.

"If you're like me," he said to viewers at one point, gesturing to the Labour and Conservative leaders, "the more those two attack each other, the more they sound the same."

It was a homage to the line used by Ronald Reagan to humiliate Jimmy Carter in 1980: "There he goes again." It won't win Mr. Clegg the prime ministership, but it won him the evening.

Mr. Brown and Mr. Cameron, who face each other on live TV every week in the parliamentary debating ritual known as Prime Minister's Questions, seemed to fall into the background.

The phrase repeated over and over again in the debate, by both Mr. Brown and Mr. Cameron, was "I agree with Nick." The two leaders stumbled over one another to compliment the charismatic Mr. Clegg, in part because he stands to be the kingmaker if either ends up trying to form a minority government or a coalition.

Beyond that, it was a night of damage control. Mr. Cameron generally avoided appearing to be the aristocratic, expensively educated leader of what was once known as "the nasty party," though he tilted his message sharply to the right on the red-meat conservative issues of crime, immigration and the military - even suggesting at one point that Britain needs to keep its nuclear arsenal because a war with China is possible.

He pitched many of his messages over the heads of the mainstream electorate to what his party sees as a "silent majority" of angry voters on the disenchanted right, delivering aggressive social-conservative calls for more discipline in the schools, tougher sentences for convicts, sharp cuts to immigration levels and more nuclear weapons. Tory advisers said this would deliver a far greater victory than the post-debate polls indicated.

Mr. Brown generally avoided appearing like a bumbler who had crashed the economy, arguing strongly that Britain needs to avoid big-budget cuts for another year until financial markets are stabilized - an attack on Mr. Cameron's call for immediate cuts to programs and taxes.

But the Prime Minister's attempts to make jokes at David Cameron's expense - a tactic that has worked in the hands of the likes of Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair - generally fell flat. On the other hand, Mr. Cameron's efforts to suggest that the government was a hotbed of waste and overspending sounded rather like the rant of a London taxi driver.

Such discords aside, what was striking to viewers accustomed to Canadian and U.S. debates was the degree of consensus among the leaders.

All three agreed that teaching has become too test-based. All agreed that more police are needed, that the House of Lords should become an elected body, that voters should be allowed to hold recall referendums on undesirable MPs, and that the National Health Service should be protected from cuts.

None seemed willing to confront Britain's voters with basic truths: that crime is at its lowest levels ever, so there should be fewer police (voters are too crime-obsessed for this to be mentioned); that the military will face a sharp cutback with an Afghan withdrawal; and most importantly that Britain's public service will shrink by at least 3 per cent a year for the better part of a decade.

It was Mr. Clegg, of course, who dared hint at this. "This is a phony debate," he said at one point. "We are all pretending there are billions and squillions more pounds that can be thrown into the NHS, but there won't be any money."

In the next two debates, to be held over the coming week, it is unlikely that the two mainstream leaders will want to be so kind to Mr. Clegg. Instead, it has turned into a race to catch up with his television skills.

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