Why one debate was so important

Tony GarnerThe dust is settling. No-one is taking off but some are making progress on the rails. Enough of the metaphors already. We’re talking Election 2010 and the fallout following last week’s leaders’ debate.

Whatever we felt about the broadcast there is little doubt that, five days on, it has become a game changer.

The Lib Dems and Nick Clegg are now a factor in this election in a way that no-one had forecast. Even this time last week they were being ignored.

In fact, even as the debate was being aired on ITV, the panel on Have I Got News For You over on BBC1 were pillorying Clegg and his party as an irrelevance.

The Saturday re-run was strange to watch. The jokes at the Lib Dems’ expense suddenly seemed very hollow. It only underlined the seismic shift that had occurred and lent further credence to the old cliché about a week being a long time in politics.

Whatever happens from here Clegg has made his reputation as a savvy performer.

The Lib Dems are now being taken seriously and David Cameron is looking increasingly desperate. His tactic of refusing to go negative during the last debate made him appear impotent to the attacks he received from both sides.

Why was one debate so important? Aren't we supposed to be voting for policies rather than leaders who look and sound good on telly?

The truth is we are all suckers for a good soundbite. Another sad truth is that in policy terms there is not an awful deal to choose from the three parties. They appear to be arguing mainly over the fine detail rather than the principles.

Now the Conservatives are attacking the notion of a hung parliament which is hard to get people excited about. Little wonder we get obsessed by the personalities.

What happens next?

Well this will be fascinating. Cameron went into this campaign with a reputation as the young pretender. Brown as the hardnosed bruiser and Clegg, well, with very little to lose.

That’s changed. The Lib Dems — for this week at least — are now a factor and it will be interesting to see how the old guard deal with this new reality. Will they go on the attack or try to ignore this new kid on the block?

Cameron’s Achilles heel for many is his Eton education. He’s regarded as a toff. It’s a charge that could be levelled at Clegg too — as he too is a product of the public school system.

One thing that is now certain is that thanks to the arrival of a live TV debate into the political scene we have an election campaign that has come to life.

Tony Garner, director, Viva PR.