Who won Britain’s second debate?

Who won Britain’s second debate?

Last night’s British election debate, the second of three televised face-offs between David Cameron, Gordon Brown, and Nick Clegg, was ostensibly focused on foreign policy. But the fact that the "foreign policy" portion included disquisitions on the personal commuting habits of each candidate and whether the Pope should be banned from visiting Britain in September (as Dave Barry would say, no I am not making this up), show just how little national security issues matter in this election. Which is unfortunate, since there are serious questions at stake about Britain’s role in the world, transatlantic relations, the European Union, and Britain’s own security challenges. 

Ironically the most forceful statement on national security last night came from the otherwise ponderous Gordon Brown. After some vapid hand-wringing by Nick Clegg on the question of upgrading Britain’s nuclear deterrent, Brown took Clegg to the woodshed with an emphatic "I say to you Nick — Get real! Get real about the dangers we face…" At which point Cameron astutely realized that piling on Clegg further might be overkill, and instead chimed in that "I never thought I would utter these words: I agree with Gordon."

Britain’s relationship with the United States received only passing reference, which is perhaps telling about the anemic state of the Special Relationship. At least the reference came in an exchange in which Clegg tried to defend himself against Brown’s charge of being "anti-American," hopefully showing that being perceived as anti-American isn’t an automatic vote-getter. 

Clegg himself remains somewhat enigmatic and unformed on foreign policy. On the one hand, as Nile Gardiner has shown, Clegg and his LibDem platform have served up an abundance of muddleheaded or downright disconcerting statements on a host of national security issues. (And this is a guy who once interned at the Nation). But a seasoned Conservative MP who knows Clegg describes him privately as someone who actually hasn’t paid much attention to foreign policy until now, and who would act more responsibly as he learns the issues or actually takes power. 

The prospect of a "Prime Minister Clegg" still remains somewhere between far-fetched and inconceivable, just based on the realities of the electoral map, though the prospect of a hung parliament has gone from far-fetched to very possible. Judging from the immediate post-debate polls, last night’s contest gave a slight edge to Cameron and Clegg, leaving Brown to just moil along. But judging from newspaper headlines today anointing Cameron the winner and headlines earlier in the week attacking Clegg, the fickle British media has now turned against Clegg (last week’s media star) and is taking off his varnish with a vengeance. Close elections sell papers, and there will be a lot of papers sold in Britain between now and May 6.

Still, it is not clear if the debate will move the needle on the polls very much. In a more sober-minded assessment, a senior Tory told me today that, "tactically the debate was a draw, but strategically it was a defeat for us" because by not scoring a clear win, Cameron missed an opportunity to regain the initiative and recapture his erstwhile strong lead. Only two weeks remain until election day. That is a very short window by any political standard, but then considering how much tumult this race has experienced in the last week alone, almost anything is possible.