Nick Clegg broke the duopoly in British politics with a strong performance in last night's historic first televised election debate between the three main party leaders.
The Liberal Democrat leader matched Gordon Brown and David Cameron blow for blow during 90 minutes of lively exchanges which confounded expectations that the strict rules would produce a sterile discussion.
A YouGov survey of the public for The Sun showed that Mr Clegg had won the debate. A text poll of 10,000 viewers of Sky News showed Mr Clegg on level pegging with Mr Cameron during the debate with Mr Brown trailing in third place. But then the Tory leader moved ahead to 41 per cent, with Mr Clegg on 32 per cent and Mr Brown on 27 per cent.
Other polls taken during the debate put Mr Clegg ahead, confirming that he had seized the moment.
Although all three parties inevitably claimed victory afterwards, Mr Clegg's strong showing raised hopes among the Liberal Democrats that Britain had finally entered a new era of three-party politics.
Last night's debate in Manchester, screened live on ITV offered a unique opportunity for Britain's third party to compete on an equal footing with Labour and the Tories.
Mr Cameron, ahead in the opinion polls, had the most to lose last night - and Labour and the Liberal Democrats agreed that he had indeed lost. Ironically, he was first to propose the leaders' debates.
Labour insisted that Mr Brown had dented Mr Cameron's performance by exposing that the Tories would not match Labour's commitments on police and schools. Tories claimed Mr Cameron had proved he was ready to be prime minister.
The three leaders referred to each other by their Christian names but that did not prevent fierce clashes over issues such as economy, MPs' expenses and immigration.
Mr Cameron claimed that immigration was "out of control" and called for numbers entering the country every year to be brought down from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands.
The Prime Minister retorted: "I don't like these words, because we are bringing it under control." He also condemned Conservative plans to impose an annual cap on migrant numbers as "arbitrary". Mr Cameron protested that Britain had had 13 years of a Labour government, but only just started talking about immigration
Turning to the expenses scandal, Mr Brown said he had been "shocked and sickened" by what had happened and Mr Cameron denounced it as an "horrendous episode". But the Liberal Democrat leader accused the two main parties of falling far short of the sweeping action needed to clean up politics.
The Prime Minister insisted he agreed with Mr Clegg over the need for electoral reform, pointing to his plans to hold referendums on changing the voting system and replacing the Lords with a directly elected chamber. Mr Clegg fired back: "They did nothing for 13 years."
Mr Cameron dismissed Labour's backing for electoral reform so close to the election as a "bit of a ploy" and accused the Liberal Democrat leader of being "holier than thou", pointing to the 2.5m pounds his party received from Michael Brown, a "criminal on the run".
The moderator, the ITV presenter Alastair Stewart, described last night's first debate as "history in the making." The opening, one-minute statements by the three leaders - who did not know the audience's questions in advance - were revealing. Mr Brown's pitch, in effect, was that the country needed to stick with his experience until the economic storm had passed.
Mr Cameron began with an apology over the MPs' expenses scandal, admitting: "Your politicians - frankly, all of us - let you down." He said: "There is a big choice at this election. We can go on as we are, or we can say, 'No, Britain can do much better'. We can deal with our debts, we can get our economy growing and avoid this jobs tax, and we can build a bigger society."
Mr Clegg directed his fire equally at what he called "the two old parties," saying the election offered "a fantastic opportunity to do things differently." He told voters: "So don't let anyone tell you the only choice is the same old politics. We can do something new, something different."
On law and order, Mr Brown landed a blow on Mr Cameron, saying the Tories had not matched Labour's pledge to maintain police numbers. He told the Tory leader: "This is not [Prime Minister's] Question Time, it is Answers Time, David." But the Tories said later that the Prime Minister had misrepresented Labour's policy by saying spending on the police would rise.
The Prime Minister warned that Tory plans to cut 6bn pounds from spending in 2010-11 would threaten thousands of jobs of "good people".
Mr Cameron said the savings were achievable as the public sector remained profligate, citing a 7 per cent pay rise awarded to hospital managers.
The Liberal Democrat leader accused his rivals of not being straight and pretending that huge sums could be saved just by scrapping "paper clips and pot plants" in Whitehall.
The second 90-minute debates takes place on Sky News on Thursday next week and will focus on foreign affairs, with the final one a week later on BBC1 covering the economy.
Clash of the leaders: Key moments
GB "We want to control immigration. I introduced a points system... "
DC "Immigration is too high at the moment, it has been for the last 10 years and needs to come down. Two million over a decade - it's too much. We need not just a points system but a limit."
Clegg makes three references to "hardened criminals on the run" and describes prisons as "overcrowded colleges of crime". Cameron tells a story about a burglary which ended with the sofa being set alight and a child dying, and says the perpetrator will soon be released, too soon for his liking.
Brown on the Tory attack billboards carrying his face: "My face is smiling in these posters and I'm very grateful to you and Lord Ashcroft for funding that."
The discussion began on MPs' expenses.
GB "I was shocked and sickened... We need to reform the House of Commons and cut the House of Lords by 50 per cent."
DC "Gordon, you've had 13 years... "
NC says the Lib Dems pushed a bill to sack MPs, and points to both men, "You blocked it. You blocked it."
The evening's key exchange was on the economy, with Cameron saying Government expenditure should be cut because it was bloated by "waste".
DC "If we think the future is just spending more money it's profoundly wrong. It's like saying that giving up smoking would be bad for your health. Cut the waste, it will be good for the economy."
NC "These two talk about waste as if we could fill the black hole in public finances by cutting paperclips and pot plants in Whitehall."
GB "The only reason we have kept the economy moving is because the Government stepped in to put money into the economy. Only the Conservative Party is against that. It is important to take no risks with the recovery. Once again the Conservatives are showing they are a risk to the recovery."
DC "6bn pound [cuts] is [only] one out of every 100 pounds this government spends - which business or family hasn't had to make that decision at some point?"
Before this exchange, the ITV.com live ratings were: Clegg 57 per cent, Cameron 23 per cent, Brown 20 per cent. Afterwards, it was Clegg 43 per cent, Brown 34 per cent, Cameron 22 per cent.
Each leader's key line
Clegg: The more they attack each other the more they sound the same.
Cameron: You've had 13 years, Gordon.
Broke rules (kept talking)
Nick Clegg 9
David Cameron 0
Gordon Brown 5
"I agree with Nick"
Brown love bombs Lib Dem: 7 times.
Working the crowd
Clegg name-checks the audience: 10 times.
How they fared
Score on ITV.com ratings: Clegg 45 per cent, Brown 36 per cent, Cameron 19 per cent
YouGov: NC 51 per cent, DC 29 per cent, GB 19 per cent
ITV poll: NC 43 per cent, DC 26 per cent, GB 20 per cent
- THE INDEPENDENT