So they were wrong. Some of the political commentariat said the TV debates would reveal nothing and change voters' minds hardly at all. Now it's hard to deny that they've turned the election picture upside down. Or blown it wide open, at least. 

 

For the parties, the debates are vastly magnifying the importance of their leaders' key debating skills - the ability to project 'the vision thing', survivability in the short but very public bursts of political hand-to-hand fighting, and what Olympic figure skating judges call 'artistic impression'.  

 

For the voting public it's a whole new experience. Part Gladiator and part X Factor - a sort of political Strictly Come Dancing, with the public themselves deciding who wins each week's contest. They're obviously enjoying it.

 

Here the 'expert' judges have no say - in this context, that means the moderators, and the media in general. 

 

That, surely, is a crucial aspect of all this - of the public engagement (excitement, even?), the wild gyrations of the opinion polls, and the sudden opening up of new fronts and policy battles.

  

The point is that the TV debates are unmediated. 

 

Adam Boulton's role last night was pretty much limited to introductions - of the programme, of the opening statements and of the questions.

 

The only time I noted him trying to raise a point of his own was his short interjection to Nick Clegg about "today's newspaper headlines". It was a half-hearted attempt to get a response from the Lib Dem leader about the rash of aggressively critical stories in Conservative-leaning papers.  

 

Nick Clegg was able to bat the point away instantly as "complete rubbish".

 

It was the same for all three leaders on other issues on which they are seen to be vulnerable.

 

Yes, the carefully selected questions from the audience raised some of the most contentious long-term issues of the campaign - immigration, debt, Trident and Europe, as well the MPs' expenses scandal. But no-one in the whole 90-minute programme had any chance to challenge what was said by the three leaders. 

 

Except the other leaders. Their claims and promises grew grander and more sweeping as time went on, with no challenge or rebuke from Boulton permitted, and no follow-up from the questioners or other members of the audience.   

 

That was the agreement - the pre-condition, in fact - for the three parties to participate in the debates.  

 

In that sense the winners were the politicians themselves. For once they could frolic together on unmediated prime-time television with nobody harass or rebuke them in the name of the voter or the general public.

 

My verdict, therefore, on Debate Number Two is that the leaders got away with a lot. It was a defeat for the British tradition of vigorous journalistic scrutiny.

 

Last night's debate was livelier and hotter than the first. But in this important way it was less satisfactory than an average edition of Question Time. Because there people in the audience can talk back and join in with passion, and David Dimbleby can put any politician on the spot at any time and press for answers.

 

Like Houdini, the politicians found the keys to release themselves from their underwater chains. This time.

 

So, in the third debate it'll be up to all three leaders to do the job better for the rest of us - the job of questioning doubtful facts, unfunded pledges and visions of Utopia. 

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