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Time for Cameron to cosy up to Clegg?

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 23 April 2010

Despite an improved debating performance David Cameron cannot seem to shake the feeling that "new boy" Nick Clegg has become the classroom favourite, writes Peter McHugh.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg in debate (Getty)

David Cameron is looking into the abyss this morning. He should have won big last night, but he just did not do it.

The exit poll, in The Sun unsurprisingly has Dave "wot won it". But it isn't really so. He had to crush the opposition, burst the Lib Dem bubble and regain the initiate.

Instead, as ITV and The Independent have it, Nick Clegg was the winner, albeit with a reduced majority on last week, and Cameron and - who would believe it - Gordon Brown, shared equal second place.

What a night of nightmares for the Tories. Just eight days ago, their man was sitting on a 9 per cent lead over Labour and the Lib Dems were where they had been all his political life - absolutely nowhere.

It's not that David was not better than last week. He definitely was. He stared into the camera, talked about what he would do if he was PM, and had clearly listened to all of the words of wisdom from his advisers.

But he still looked like the schoolboy who could not work out how new boy Clegg had become the classroom favourite with even old boy Brown had been caught trying to suck up to him.

Spin room politics
As the debate ended, the Tories trotted out Dr Liam Fox to claim victory on behalf of David Cameron. Dr Fox had earlier looked somewhat shattered as it was revealed he had been burgled and had his laptop stolen. 12 hours later, he looked as if he had been burgled again - but this time someone had stolen his leader.

For Labour, it was the loyal Ed Balls who tried to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat for Gordon. Although his message was somewhat lost as his eyes had the look of someone who could have just popped a couple of pills.

Lord "call me Paddy, old boy" Ashdown had the pleasure for the first time in his life of being asked what it was like to have his man leading the race.

The Daily Mail, still ambivalent about the Tory leader, even this close to election day kept the story off its first edition front page.

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The Times, also part of the Murdoch stable, at least called it a draw. Cameron and Clegg are neck and neck says the headline of their first edition.

The editor of The Times is probably hiding under his desk since it is only 24 hours since the Bonnie and Clyde of News International, Rebekah Wade and James Murdoch, reportedly made an audacious dawn raid on the offices of The Independent, allegedly furious at its poster allegations that Rupert might be interfering with the democratic process.

So why are the papers extra important today? Because television was NOT important last night.

The leaders debate, episode two, was shown on Sky News, whose advertising' slogan used to be "available in 60 million homes in Europe". The trouble is, it was not available in all the homes in the UK.

Indeed, for many who did have it, it was a surprise since the Sky package they bought was for the sport and the movies.

Last week more than 10m people tuned in to ITV to watch episode one. It was almost as big as Britain's Got Talent! But last night the talent ran out. Just 2.1m watched episode two on Sky News. A simulcast on the BBC News channel picked up a further 1.3m and Sky3 added another 600,000. Indeed Coronation Street alone at 8.30 picked up 7m viewers.

The trouble is the politicians needed the ones who chose Corrie. It's the undecided they, and particularly the Tories, wanted. But they didn't get them.

Sky chose an art gallery in Bristol to stage the debate. It was all son et lumiere outside, but little sound and fury inside. The ubiquitous Kay Burley, doyenne of Sky News, said we would see every bead of sweat "in high definition".

"Gordon Brown clutched onto his lectern like the helmsman of a tea clipper lashed to its wheel as it rounded Cape Horn."

But despite this promise and its pledge to jazz up the proceedings, after last week, the audience still looked as if it was in a catatonic trance.

Gordon kicked off but with the air of a man who could not quite work out what had happened to him. He had spent 10 years trying to shaft a fortysomething, fresh faced, well brought up public schoolboy who spoke perfect middle English and was happily married to a successful career mum.

Having got shot of Tony Blair, one can only imagine his horror as he stared last night at two more TBs. He clutched onto his lectern like the helmsman of a tea clipper lashed to its wheel as it rounded Cape Horn.

But Gordon was better last night, if only because Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell got him to realise that the other two wanted to be a PM and he was already one. He exuded newly found confidence and statesmanship, and, thank God, did not grin, name-dropping Sarkozy and Merkel, G20s and summits.

Nick and David were like his "two boys squabbling at bathtime" he said. Not a thought many would like to pursue.

But reminding the audience he was the PM, also reminded them of his responsibilities for Iraq and Afghanistan, unemployment's rise to 2.5 million and a promise of no more boom and bust. He said if we wanted all style and no substance, then we could count him out. He is certainly right on the style front.

Foreign policy in the limelight
It was global affairs night in Bristol, bringing more media attention than at any time since Tony Benn lost his seat as an MP. Global affairs are, we guess, foreign affairs written large and it should have been dodgy ground for Nick Clegg.

But it was Cameron who got himself in a bit of a fix when he had to promise yet another referendum on Europe but only if the Europeans were really nasty to us again.

Clegg should also have been out of sorts on scrapping the Trident nuclear programme. But he was quick to remind Brown and Cameron that their favourite generals had come out apparently on his side only two days ago. Global warming got a mention as Gordon banged the nuclear power station drum.

Whilst David, once famous for putting a windmill on his roof, called for a long-term policy on energy, Nick's best plan seemed to be suggesting people should lag their lofts.

More from Peter McHugh
- Leaders debate: crunch time for Cameron
- The first debate: 10m viewers but no fire
- Leaders prepare for first TV debate

The Tories scored well, as expected, on immigration, with Cameron's plan for a cap. Gordon was out of his depth, having had 13 years to get it right. And Clegg seemed in trouble with his plan to grant amnesty to all illegal immigrants until he reminded Cameron that Boris Johnson was on his side.

The weirdest moment of the night was when the three of them were asked what they thought about the planned visit of the Pope to the UK. It was Joseph Stalin who, when warned by one of his advisers not to take on the Catholic church, famously asked: "How many divisions does the Pope have?" Our three weren't falling into that trap. He might not have any divisions but he has plenty of votes.

They did not agree with what the Pope said, but they were all delighted he was coming. Mind you, a week is a long time in papal politics.

Having got into bother last week for trying to get into bed with Nick Clegg too many times, Gordon, like a spurned lover was at it again last night but this time calling Clegg and Cameron, "get real". A phrase clearly delivered to him, since it sat strangely in the mouth of the man from the Manse.

It was around this time that Cameron said "I never thought I would utter these words, I agree with Gordon". But, by this time it was hard to remember what he was agreeing with Gordon about. But if all of this was discussed last night, what wasn't?

Election countdown
Well. The elephant in the room was not the host, Adam Boulton. It was a secret that dare not speak its name - a hung parliament. Having been slapped from pillar to post last week for sleeping with the enemy, there was no way Gordon was going to be the first to raise an alliance with the Lib Dems. Although he did drop the tasty tit bit of electoral reform.

As for David, his advisers warned him not to mention the idea and certainly not to rubbish the voting intentions of people who at this stage might still swing back to the Tories. But Nick was unsurprisingly delighted to remind the audience that everyone's vote counted, and he was clearly very happy to be seen to be wearing the crown, sash and who knows even the swimsuit of the queen of the beauty pageant.

Ten million people watched last week's debate, but sadly most of them did not watch again last night. No doubt, preferring Coronation St and the football to a second bite at this particular cherry.

It may still be two weeks to election day for most, but for some, as much as 10 per cent of the electorate, it is only two days till they vote. Postal votes are due to be filled in Monday, pulling in the election preferences of the armed services, the old and infirm and the expats. This group traditionally veers toward the Tories, but will they do so this time?

Sky's production of the debate was highly professional, although I am sure, one of 76 rules banned running the news ticker tape across the bottom of the screen. But apart from telling us that Liverpool had lost 1-0 (first leg only) to Atletico Madrid, it also kept the Sky clock up throughout.

That could have been a plus but as episode two drew to a close, it became a bit like those dreadful days back at school when you prayed for the end of the maths class. And so it finally ended.

The greatest irony of all on the night is the man who came last could come first. The disposition of our parliamentary democracy, its seats and votes means that Gordon Brown could, on this day in a fortnight's time, be heading down the mall clutching once again the keys for No.10 again - but only with the help of his new best friend.

Is it time for David to consider cosying up? His last chance to slip into something more attractive to Nick will come next week when the BBC stages episode three of this bodice-ripper.

The location is a secret but there were reports last night of a tumbrel out of Bristol to the Midlands. Was David Cameron its lonely passenger?

As John Donne beautifully wrote: "Ask not for whom the bell tolls?...."

Peter McHugh is the former director of programmes at GMTV and was this year awarded the Royal Television Society Lifetime Achievement Award.

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