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Results expose myth of the big debate

The biggest loser in the British General Election is the Leaders' Debate. It was the favourite. It was the breakthrough factor that was going to change everything, bringing the Liberal Democrats into a much more powerful position.

It didn't happen. It SO didn't happen.

Remember the excitement, just three weeks ago, over the performance of Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, in the first TV debate? It was an 'omigod' moment. This man -- hardly known over here and not much better known in Britain -- was seen as having won the debate hands down, with his TV smarts and his attacks on what he called "the old parties".

Yet, when the results began to come through last night, it was perfectly clear that Clegg's Lib Dems had not had a breakthrough. At dawn today, it was perfectly clear that they had, if anything, dropped seats

The problem with the Leaders' Debate programmes, in Britain and in Ireland, is that they mean much more to media than they do to voters. Media LOVE big debates. Their correspondents can do issue-by-issue score-card stuff. They can declare winners or losers. They can carry endless opinion polls confirming -- in this case -- the bleeding obvious: that a younger, fresher, quite good looking bloke who understands the mechanics of TV is likely to be more appealing than a much older man like Brown, doubly hampered by a reputation as a loser and by the fact that he's blind in one eye.

The excitement was doubled by the fact that, first time around, Clegg seemed to trounce not just Brown, but David Cameron also. Media gleefully pointed out that, in the first debate, Clegg was the only one to talk to the camera, thereby meeting the needs of viewers seated at home.


The media glee misses a number of points. First point is that voters don't want a TV presenter as Prime Minister. They want a leader, a manager, a competent political operator. The second point is that, while media find it fascinating that Brown and Cameron got better in both subsequent debates, this is not that riveting to the voter.

The reality is that Clegg's performance in the first debate was a footnote in media history by the time voters pitched up at their polling stations.

Of course, at this point, the Lib Dems are in a powerful position. But, what's fascinating is that they're in no more powerful a position than if the three televised debates had never taken place. Long before those debates, the possibility of a hung parliament was being canvassed. Long before those debates, the possibility of the Lib Dems having the opportunity to go into coalition government with one of the other two parties was being discussed.

The kingmaker role could still be played by the Lib Dems, even though they haven't made a breakthrough. But the one thing that's certain is that all the column inches and broadcast time devoted to how well Clegg did in the big debate might as well not have been written. The three big debates, so jealously fought over by the TV stations, mattered not a whit when push came to shove.