In the run-up to the final television debate between the three main party leaders last Thursday Prime Minister Gordon Brown could hardly have had a worse preparation.
The day before the debate his uncomfortable encounter on the street with disillusioned Labour voter, 65 year old grandmother Gillian Duffy in Rochdale, quickly descended from bad to campaign-damaging.
He failed to remove his microphone and was recorded describing the woman as bigoted for her views on immigration and East European workers.
The whole episode was like something scripted by Armando Iannucci for the BBC television series The Thick Of It.
In the back of his car, as he was driven away from the Women’s Institute’s answer to Jeremy Paxman, he described the encounter in a low, despairing voice as a “disaster” and blamed a person called Sue for setting the whole thing up.
Where was Malcolm Tucker when Brown needed him?
But after that torture by media, at least Brown came out fighting in the third debate.
He even slapped down Bigotgate with his opening line – “There’s a lot to this job and as you saw yesterday and I don’t always get it right”. You said it.
Weirdly, although the debate was meant to be about the economy it only got interesting when it turned to the topic on which Brown failed to come up with a decent response to in Rochdale – immigration.
Cunningly, the PM avoided describing Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and Tory leader David Cameron as intolerant and prejudiced as he did Duffy.
Instead, he painted Clegg as proposing to open the floodgates with his proposed 10-year immigration amnesty and Cameron as a fantasist for his immigration cap. What a difference a day makes.
When it came to the economy there was nothing new in anything the leaders came up with. The first question was on why none of them were explaining the full extent of the cuts that will have to be made to get the UK back in the black.
Each proceeded to show empathy with the person asking the question and their state of confusion, bad-mouth their rivals and then fudge the issue.
On balance, Clegg seemed to be most upfront about the extent of the cuts his party would make in implementing the UK’s economic Slim-Fast plan.
On bank bonuses Cameron blamed Brown, Brown blamed bankers and Clegg explained how under his watch the City would be hung, drawn and quartered.
On the subject of affordable housing the debate similarly failed to provide any new information.
The question came from the wife of a chartered accountant, who made a salient point – if a middle-class family like hers can’t get on the housing ladder what hope does anyone else have?
In response Cameron called for more homes to be built and housing targets to be changed, Clegg called for 250,000 vacant homes to be renovated and Brown blamed the housing industry for failing to serve this country. Who’s been in charge for the past 13 years again?
An early poll on the debate for the Rupert Murdoch-owned – so pro-Tory – The Times put Clegg and Cameron as joint winners with 38% each. Brown limped in third with 25%.
The three-way TV debates have certainly livened up the general election with Clegg the chief beneficiary, but the net outcome seems to be that the country is staring at a noose.
Review by Robert Thickett