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Who won the 'Ask the Chancellor' debate?

Millions of words will be written on last night's Ask the Chancellor debate on Channel 4 as people strive to analyse whether any fresh shafts of light were thrown on the economic policies of the three main parties (answer: no, so let's move on) and which party most benefited from the hour long programme.
The consensus, Daily Mail readers' polls excepted, is that the Liberal Democrat shadow chancellor Vince Cable came out in front. If it was a horse race it would probably have been by a length over Alistair Darling with George Osborne another length or two further behind. Labour and Conservative party spin doctors are already out in force trying to debunk that consensus but they will be struggling to convince people otherwise. However, this isn't a one-off race but merely the preliminary skirmish in a six week long election campaign so it is more important to see it in a broader context. In which case, Darling's performance was probably the most crucial last night.
Among those who follow politics closely, Cable's confident handling of the issues and sharp jabs at the other two were largely what was expected from him. If he hadn't 'won' on the night there would have been some savage criticism of him in the press this morning and a mood of serious depression at Lib Dem HQ.
The Tories will have breathed a sigh of relief that Osborne didn't make any serious mistakes and didn't get slaughtered such is the relatively low esteem he is held in the Conservative Party. They know he is a weak link and so does he. Why else did he feel the need, especially in the first half hour, to refer to David Cameron so often? This was in sharp contrast to the other two who didn't feel the need to cite their party leaders in their aid at all. He did much better than some feared which probably accounts for the enthusiasm of Daily Mail readers for his performance this morning.
But is was the real Chancellor of the Exchequer who I think benefited most. His was a solid and convincing performance, as may have been expected, but it was coloured by touches of humour and humanity that may have surprised many viewers. He scored well on issues of substance such as they were in the debate, especially over the Conservative's sudden re-conversion to tax cuts, and will have enhanced his standing. It should have Gordon Brown feeling glad he didn't succeed in dumping him in favour of Ed Balls.
As a prelude to a General Election campaign that will be dominated by grave economic issues it was a fittingly serious debate and may have even done something to enhance the battered, badly tarnished reputation of politics and politicians - all three can take credit for that. It does put us in a rather strange starting place, however. 
Usually, when elections are fought against a background of economic crisis it is the Conservatives who have the advantage as they are normally seen as the party most likely to be trusted on the economy (I am taking in terms of a broad sweep across post-war British politics), with Labour behind them and the Liberal Democrats (or Liberals) struggling to be heard as their strong ground is usually seen as constitutional reform and civil liberties which many voters consider luxuries. This election will start with those positions completely reversed which goes a long way to explaining why the Conservatives have failed to capitalise on a deeply unpopular government as previous oppositions have. This will make the final televised debate between the three party leaders - which will be on the economy - crucial in determining the outcome of the election. While much will depend on how the first two debates have gone, that final debate a week before polling day will probably see Lib Dem supporters holding their breath hoping that Nick Clegg doesn't fritter away the advantage gained for them by Vince Cable and where the general expectation will be that David Cameron should emerge on top. If Gordon Brown makes a similarly favourable impact to that of Darling last night then he may create enough momentum to cause a shock when the ballot boxes finally open. It won't need 'knock-out' blows - although if one comes it could be decisive - but every little advantage could swing significant numbers of voters in what looks like an increasingly difficult to call election.

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