Labour spin suggests he is running scared, but this is not necessarily true; it shows that he understands how the landscape has changed since 'that' debate. It is a tough call though. Attack 'he can do no wrong' Nick Clegg, and Cameron is perceived as bullying. Fail to come out fighting, and he looks like a walkover. He was wise in his address not to mention Clegg's name directly.
The Conservatives are terrified and no wonder. A party aide says: 'Many of the back room staff are blind to the fact that David was not at his best.' This was not identified early enough and there is a sense of shock among the Tories. The reality is that there could now be a Lab-Lib coalition, which would make life very difficult for the Tories. They cannot let this happen again. In politics, having an ultra-loyal team is paramount (something the Conservatives have been lacking for years); however, with that comes a devotion that risks thinking your leader can do no wrong.
Cameron works best under pressure. Consider how he became Tory leader; Clegg last Thursday was only replicating Cameron's performance against David Davis in Blackpool's Winter Gardens in 2005. Two years later at the Tory conference in 2007, Cameron's crowd-pleasing performance made Gordon Brown embarrassingly cancel his general election plans.
The Liberal Democrats are not whiter than white. For Clegg it is very easy to promise the earth when nobody is questioning his policies. Already he is softening his policy on Europe, aware that his party's pro-Europe stance is unpopular. This shows the measure of the man. Clegg has had his moment; it is up to Brown and Cameron to make sure that voters are under no illusion about what he stands for.
This general election is just as much a test of the British people as of the three contenders. Are they really going to treat this like Pop Idol or a small town by-election? The Lib Dems are an interesting think-tank. They should remain that way.
- Tara Hamilton-Miller is a political adviser and formerly worked for the Conservative Party press team