Many people will think at this point that David Cameron was quite mad to agree to the debates especially with the participation of the LibDems Nick Clegg but I suspect he knew that (a) the Tory support was soft and likely to fracture at some point and (b) there are many people who might still desert Labour but couldn’t bring themselves to vote for the Conservatives – they are still for many people who in their 40s now Thatcher’s children. So his logic in agreeing might have been that he was good at this sort of thing – considerably more so than Gordon Brown – so why not play to his strengths and also that those who could not bring themselves to vote Conservative and were staying with the Labour party for that reason alone might desert if the LibDem leader did ok.
And then Nick Clegg went and did a lot better than ok.
Now it has happened and a lot of Labour and Tory support has shifted over to the LibDems, having the effect of removing the last of Labour’s floating voter support. I think it is very much harder for Labour to win that support back while for the Tories it should be a more straight forward task to win back most of the few % lost so far. The issue of Europe and other little Englander angles in the press will serve them well in doing so. Yes it might leave them getting only 36/37% on polling day which could be short of an overall majority but that is how it has looked for a long while now anyway with the Tories unable to consistently break the 40% barrier. Plus, the LibDems will find it hard to retain all their new support in the face of the media backlash that will come as we approach the 2nd last weekend before polling. Yet a result of say, Tories on 37%, Labour on 29% and LibDems on 26% would be a very real win for the Tories. They will be reasonably able to square away a deal with the DUP and SNP to secure a majority for a couple of years.
So what would be the most important thing Cameron would have gained from the debate? The space that would be provided by a Labour party that might tear itself apart over the next year in a messy leadership contest as it faces up to a real contest for the role of opposition. Had there been no debate and the Tories won a small majority on the back of 38% against Labour on 32%, he would have faced a new Labour leader who didn’t have to worry about a challenge from the LibDems and indeed could count on them to guard a flank as they prepared to face another election within 2/3 years. Instead, they will view as they did in the 1980s the LibDems as rivals and it is that contest which will hurt their ability to bounce back quickly. Just as it did in the 80s when it was the divided opposition which give the Tories such large majorities in parliament despite only getting barely over 40% of the vote.