It was the first time that Britain has screened such a debate, the first of three, where the three, in theory, potential future prime ministers, came together in open debate in front of a television audience who could vote them into power. The three leaders of the main British political parties, Gordon Brown, Labour, David Cameron, Conservative and Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrats.
Of the three, Nick Clegg, was the new kid on the block just as his party is the also-ran outsider in what has been traditionally a two-horse race. The format of the debate put him up there with the big boys and, unsurprizingly, it has changed the way we look at the power struggle.
We do really know what the Labour and Conservative Parties are like – they have been in and out of power now for all of our lifetimes with only the very oldest of British citizens being able to remember the days when the Liberal Party was a party of government. Lloyd George Knew My Father, as the old song goes, but now it would be our great- grandfathers and most of them are long gone.
So even though we have had a succession of very nice Liberal leaders saying very nice things and getting all excited about political break-throughs for a long time now, none of us have really ever expected to see them in power.
No, we know, deep down, that we are stuck with either the Conservatives or Labour. Good old television then, to just give us all a taste of what it could be like if this election were actually a three-horse race.
It fell to Nick Clegg, fresh-faced, golden tied, and boyishly enthusiastic, to show us that if nothing else, the old brigade deserves to be shaken up a bit.
OK, the boy did good, no question about that but he, like the others, pulled the wool a bit, hide some figures and exaggerated some others but, if nothing else, he showed that he was more than up to the role of good guy if, as is expected, the electorate brings in a hung parliament in May.
Gordon Brown did a statesmanly job and came across much better than even his best friends would have predicted. He smiled a lot, maybe a little too much, but he looked and sounded like a grown up who would be that “safe pair of hands” over the next years when the nation has to be guided safely out of financial crisis. I wondered for a moment or two if he was actually enjoying himself – maybe, he has hidden TV ambitions for his life after Downing Street. I wouldn’t go there Gordon though, you are much too clever for these screen tests and, in the end, charisma is not your thing.
Standing in the middle, centre stage, stood David Cameron, in what should have been a position of advantage. Instead he was sandwiched between youth and age, enthusiasm and wisdom, charisma and gravitas, left and, er, left. Stuck there in the middle, he looked shallow, artificial, at times over-emotional, uncomfortable and, well, when the chips were down, just a bit too much like an old-fashioned petulant patrician.
I should feel sorry for him because he had the most difficult job. He was always meant to be the runaway winner of this election, and he isn’t, he was meant to be the charismatic new young thing in this debate, and he wasn’t, he had to show us that he was a heavy weight politician capable of taking over power in a nation at war in the midst of a grave financial crisis, and he has failed to do so.
It is difficult being the Conservative leader these days because you can’t talk about many of the things close to your party’s heart: hating Europe, cutting taxes, shrinking the Welfare State and bringing back nasty prison punishments. Mr Cameron, of course, is a nice guy, and doesn’t agree with any of those things, well, not all of them, and, in spite of being very rich and posh, really does want to be just an ordinary guy. Sadly, the television cameras saw through the act and revealed him as a nice guy, yes, but one out of his depth in the modern World.
The surprizingly good thing about the debate was that, against all expectations, it really was a debate with a surprizingly high level of discussion and where unspoken truths were reveal too by the unforgiving cameras – if enough of us stayed with it, and stick with the two further episodes, it really could inform this country’s electorate like never before. It might be the beginning of the unraveling of the old system in fact.