It leaves the campaigns of all three main parties, with less than a week till polling day, effectively admitting Britain will need to vote first and learn later just how bad the post-recession medicine is going to taste.
Loading article content
Too much vision and not enough economic honesty hit Gordon Brown the hardest. He had a record to defend: 13 years as Chancellor and Prime Minister.
However, last night in Birmingham he often sounded like a year-zero politician who had just started out on “his vision”. After the catastrophe of Rochdale, Labour’s campaign needed a redemption song from Mr Brown, something positive to get them through to till next Thursday. It didn’t happen. Brown’s attack strategy was to pretend that not only did Rochdale not happen, but that the last 13 years hadn’t happened either.
Mr Brown got in first before his opponents tried to land anything: his encounter with Mrs Duffy meant that he “didn’t get everything right”. And he smiled. He smiled a lot. He closed with a smile, that awkward grin that may have left Labour HQ crossing off a lost constituency every time it appeared.
This was the easiest of the three debates for Nick Clegg and David Cameron to deliver in. The economy was supposed to be home turf for the PM, his strongest hand. Was it lost preparation time given to Mrs Duffy that made him say that Labour did not want a coalition administration shared with the Tories?
In the Commons the PM resorts to a machine-gun delivery of facts about the economy when he needs a kill. But he took no-one down in this debate.
Mr Cameron sensed the Brown arsenal was lacking ammunition. “He should get his facts right,” he said in reply to question on tax credits. It felt too open-season.
Mr Clegg’s campaign advisers have fallen in love with utopian visions of the return of Liberal Britain. While Mr Cameron preferred attacks on Labour’s “hopeless record”, which will now dominate the final days of campaign, Mr Clegg wanted to repeat the trick of the two previous debates: his message was fair taxation, fair immigration policy, fairer education, essentially the fairer route between the two “old” parties.
It worked in debate one, it worked, almost in debate two. And it worked last night because this is the core message of the Liberal Democrats and no-one has seen any need to change it.
Mr Brown, however, needed a game-changing performance. Rochdale didn’t just stall the planned come-back, it nearly killed it. The PM screwed up, so he needed to put gas back in the Labour tank. This morning, the Labour fuel tank marker is still too near empty.
Birmingham was not a revival meeting for Labour; it looked like a confirmation that the campaign strategy hasn’t been enough. When Mr Brown talked of “my Britain” his opponents answers came back with the premise of “where is this hiding?”.
Mr Cameron, if we put his “big society” to one side, tried to leave the utopian stuff to the other two.
When he did, he sounded more convincing than he did in the first two debates. This is likely to encourage the hawks in the Tory campaign to insist on a five-star attack mode from Mr Cameron in the remaining days. Can Cameron do attack? He can do passionate, or at least act it well enough. And that may have to do.
For Labour, the last debate in Birmingham has not solved their ills. It was never likely to. Mr Brown too often looked beaten and resorted to scare tactics because that is what’s left in the tank.
For the LibDems, once again their momentum and their man, looked to have survived and thrived. Brown’s redemption song, if it was played at all, was all low volume.
Soundbites and quotes from the debate ... BROWN Gordon Brown, talking about a Conservative inheritance tax cut, worth £200,000, that he says would help the richest 3,000 people. "Now that’s not fairness, that’s the same old Conservative party -- tax cuts for the rich and cutting the child tax credits for the very poor, it’s simply not fair." "I have never been so angry as when I talked to the chairman of a bank who told me the night before his bank collapsed that all he had was a cash flow problem. I knew it was a structural failing that was absolutely fundamental and it needed to be recapitalised immediately." Mr Brown, as he entered the immigration row between his opponents: "I hate to enter into private grief here." CAMERON Mr Cameron on Brown’s attack on the party’s inheritance tax plans: "What you are hearing is very desperate stuff from someone who is in a very desperate state." Mr Cameron on LibDem plans for an amnesty after 10 years for illegal immigrants. "That could mean that some 600,000 people who are here illegally would actually be allowed to stay here and be given full citizenship, access to welfare, access to council housing and could also each bring a relative into our country." "I assume the banker we were just being told about was (ex RBS chief executive) Fred Goodwin -- so-called Fred the Shred. It was actually this government that gave this man a knighthood for services to banking. He not only broke his own bank, he very nearly broke down the whole economy." CLEGG "After 13 years of Labour, who would have believed it? That you would have our tax system where multi-millionaires from the City of London pay a lower rate of tax on their capital gains ... than a cleaner does on her wages." "Here they go again" as Mr Cameron and Mr Brown argued over what the Conservatives would do for low income families. "If you believe, like I do, that we can do things differently this time, that together we can really change Britain, don’t let anyone tell you it can’t happen. This time it can. This time you can make the difference."