Sturgeon shines but debate fails to shake-up campaign

FIVE years ago in Manchester, Nick Clegg looked into a camera and said: “I believe the way things are, is not the way things have to be”.

Nicola Sturgeon and Ed Miliband clash during the debate

In that sentence he announced himself to a swathe of voters who had never before considered there might be an alternative to Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Clegg-mania was born.

Tonight the Liberal Democrat leader could have been forgiven for casting his mind back to those heady days of 2010 as he took to a TV stage again just a short hop up the road in Salford.

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Not only did he go into last night’s debate as the poster boy for those angry at Coalition policies, he also found himself flanked between two leaders now playing the insurgent card Mr Clegg deployed in 2010.

Viewers held their breath as they waited to see if Green Party leader Natalie Bennett had shrugged off the nasty case of “brain fade” which afflicted her just weeks earlier when asked basic questions about her policies.

Soaring rhetoric it was not, but she managed to get to the end of her opening statement, immediately exceeding expectations.

And that was the problem for Messrs Clegg, Miliband and Cameron - familiar faces with familiar messages who were always going to struggle to stand out on this crowded stage.

Earlier in the day, a Yorkshire politician said to me: “You only have to look at what happens in hustings to know what is going to happen. If you’ve got seven candidates, by the time you get to the last person everyone’s forgotten what the question is.”

And the early minutes did much to vindicate that view. By the time Nicola Sturgeon gave the seventh answer to the opening question on the economy most viewers would only have registered that debt and the deficit were important and all the leaders had different ideas about them.

The exchanges frequently became impossible to follow as three or four talked across each other and the spectacle of male politicians shouting over and ignoring moderator Julie Etchingham will have alienated many watching.

However, the focus of the questions and answers between the leaders did reveal where they think there are votes to be won and lost.

Mr Clegg chose to fire his first arrow at Mr Cameron to try and put distance between him and his Coalition partner.

Leanne Wood ignored the fact this was supposed to be a national debate and took every opportunity to remind viewers she was from Wales while Nicola Sturgeon claimed the “anti-austerity” mantle.

Nigel Farage played on his “outsider” image by being the first to ignore the debate rules and shout asides while others spoke, going so far as to raise the issue of HIV diagnoses in immigrants as a cost to the NHS.

In a debate which often became a cacophony of voices, and which after two hours probably left all but political anoraks exhausted, Mr Miliband more than the others remembered it was more important to speak to the audience at home then address his fellow leaders.

Clegg-mania failed to deliver Lib Dem seats. In 2015, Ms Sturgeon’s performance and novelty value south of the border will earn her plaudits but that means little in a UK-wide election where most people won’t have the chance to vote SNP.

This closely-fought election is still waiting for a decisive moment.