The instant post-debate polls have Nick Clegg as the winner, and I surprised myself by agreeing. What has been quite interesting since the debate ended has been the Labour spin operation. Alastair Campbell on Sky was saying, with the blokey, "look I'm telling it like it is" attitude that he has tried to perfect, that Nick Clegg won the debate and that, seriously, he was surprised Cameron didn't do better. Along comes chirpy Alan Johnson on the BBC with an almost identical line - you know, Nick Clegg won, but I'm really surprised that Cameron didn't do better. Really Alan? Are you? You seriously expected David Cameron to win? And were ready to call it if he did?
Conventional wisdom beforehand had it that Clegg would benefit from these debates and that Cameron should do well in a format he often excels at. I thought Clegg would be unimpressive - his public performances to date have been wooden and unconvincing - but I have to say he got this one right. He listened to the others, looked at them when they were speaking, sounded a bit more spontaneous when replying, and he was, of course, able to rely on the Lib Dem 'outsider' status to have a pop at the other two parties which, to his credit, he did well. Yes, he was flaky on his crime policies (at student conferences these have created the most difficult questions for him in the past), and a bit too predictable in his 'plague on both your houses' stuff at times, but overall he may have usefully reminded people that the third option in this election is actually quite a credible one. The most embarrassing thing for Clegg was to have Gordon Brown so desperately court him throughout the programme. Brown could barely complete a sentence without saying "And I think Nick agrees with me", or, by way of a change, "I agree with Nick." One of the best bits of the whole 90 minutes was where even Clegg got a bit fed up with this and had to issue a corrective to Brown, reminding him that er, no actually, he didn't agree with him at all.
Gordon Brown came a wretched last in the post-programme polls, and his performance was pretty dire, but the expectations of him were so low beforehand that simply his ability to get through the debate without throwing a mike stand at someone can probably be counted a success. His attempts to smile remain horrific, and he was way behind the other two on the personal anecdote front, but then he does have problems communicating with ordinary people. He also shoe-horned in a clearly prepared 'joke' about Cameron and 'airbrushed policies', while another line he was determined to use was almost lost - 'this is answer time not question time David'. It was slightly odd to hear Alan Johnson tell us that this wasn't an arena where Brown ever does well. What - you mean communicating with the voters via the new-fangled medium of television? How very unfair of us to expect a modern political leader to be able to do that.
David Cameron didn't make any obvious gaffes, but his problem was that he didn't really gain the upper hand in this debate either. He was comfortable enough, had some decent points and tried to find ways of empathising with the ordinary viewer. These sometimes became too laboured - I forget the number of times he worked in the phrase "as the parent of children at a state school", or his personal NHS experience. I'm sure we're all very grateful that a Tory leader has finally decided to actually use the state services that everyone else is dependent upon, but I certainly hope his policy making is not going to be based purely on the experiences of his family. The real problem for Cameron, though, is to see how he can really drive further ahead. Nick Clegg actually beat him at his own game, and the next two debates are now Clegg's to lose rather than Cameron's, which may be to the eventual advantage of the Tory leader. For the moment, though, tonight is Nick Clegg's night.
Oh, and a quick word on body language. Cameron and Brown clearly loathe each other, and could barely bring themselves to look at each other when they spoke, whereas Clegg managed to look at each of them with a mixture of interest and perplexion when they spoke. It gave him another advantage, and made the other two look slightly ridiculous.
UPDATE: Jonathan Freedland agrees with me - had no idea he read my blog so quickly!!!