David Cameron headache as Lib Dems get TV breakthrough

• Tories and Labour reassessing third party threat
• Cameron worry over unseating 23 Lib Dem MPs

Labour and the Tories were tonight grappling with the prospect that the Liberal Democrats, long derided as a marginal third force in British politics, may be on the verge of a breakthrough nearly 30 years after the creation of the SDP.

A Lib Dem surge may not quite "break the mould" of British politics, as the founders of the SDP pledged to do back in 1981. But the Lib Dems could complicate the calculations of both of the larger parties.

A strong performance would provide more of an immediate headache for David Cameron, who needs to unseat 23 Lib Dem MPs, many in the party's south-west bastion, if he is to win a parliamentary majority of just one.

The prospect of a new Lib Dem threat, inspired by Nick Clegg's strong television performance, led to mild recriminations among Tories. These focused on Cameron's decision to press for the television debates and then to agree that Clegg should be given a platform.

But Labour was also taking stock of the resurgent Lib Dems. A mild Lib Dem bounce would please Labour because it would put pressure on the Tories. But Labour will be nervous if the Lib Dem bandwagon gains too much momentum. A powerful Lib Dem surge, which took the party out of its traditional heartland in the south-west, could see it depriving Labour of valuable seats.

There are five Labour seats among the Lib Dems' list of top 10 targets, including Edinburgh South, which would fall to Clegg's party on a swing of 1.6%.

Overnight talk from the Labour camp was that Clegg's performance opened up what they see as exciting possibilities in trying to generate an anti-Tory tactical mood across the country.

At the same time they will stress that Clegg is not a player on the main pitch. "We will present him as a commentator, an attractive accessory, but not much more," said one.

Labour feels Brown scored a hit on the economy, the issue on which the election may turn, and on Afghanistan. They see the Tory campaign as "bifurcated". "Big society, big flop", texted one cabinet minister at 10.05pm.

The Tories were experiencing their first bout of nerves of this election campaign which, until the debate, had been dominated by Cameron. There was criticism of his decision to give Clegg a platform and of the Tory response to the debate in the "spin room".

One Tory said: "It was David who said let Clegg in. That was a mistake."

Another Conservative was critical of George Osborne, the campaign director, who led the party's spin operation after the debate: "There was a very impressive Labour operation to impose their narrative on the debate.

"This went: Cameron was insubstantial, Brown was substantial and, yes, Clegg did well. Our operation, by contrast, was no damn good. We should have been saying Brown needed a win but didn't get it. Clegg did well but isn't going to be prime minister. Instead we had lots of confusing statistics on how Brown was misleading."

One veteran thought Cameron would recover. "Nick Clegg's performance was a bit like being seduced for the first time. It was very exciting. But by the second time it won't be quite so exciting.

"I was surprised by David's performance. I thought he had a sense of humour. But we didn't see any of that because he was being statesmanlike, which made him look a bit ramrod-ish. But David will go away, think about his performance and work out what he needs to do. He does always pull a rabbit out of the hat and I am sure he will be more spontaneous next week."

The discomfort among the larger parties delighted some veteran Lib Dems. Lord Ashdown, who led the new party when it emerged from the SDP-Liberal Alliance, was in no doubt that this election could provide that breakthrough. "Nick Clegg last night made this a three-way race," the former leader told the Today programme. "Last night potentially was a game-changer."

Lord Rennard, the Lib Dem former chief executive and walking almanack of politics, who still has the ear of the leadership, said that Clegg could be on the verge of a breakthrough.

"The dynamic suddenly changes if Labour starts slipping, and the Liberal Democrats start to push past them," he said. "Once the [parties'] running order changes, and changes for a few days, then everything changes."

Rennard recalled that in the 1983 election the Alliance saw its share rise 14 points from the start of the campaign to election day because Michael Foot's leadership was so weak. In the end Labour sneaked ahead — by 27.6% to 25%. In 1997, the Lib Dems rose from 11 points to 17 points, and in 2001 by 13 from 19.

Rennard said: "It is not just the debate, but the spinoff. It gives Clegg the kind of credibility that Vince Cable had had for a year or so. It is obvious that Labour will hold close to us if they can to push the Tory vote down.

That is what people like Lord Adonis, Peter Hain and Brown have been saying. They are trying to set up a hung parliament. We need to resist that if we are to take seats off the Tories.

"Cameron's line of attack will be, vote Lib Dem get Labour, and we have to resist that. That is why Clegg was insisting: why did not Labour do something on Lords reform for 13 years, or a proportional voting system or cleaning up party funding."

Rennard also thinks next week's debate on foreign policy will be good for Clegg in that he can again differentiate himself from the other two parties by reminding people that his party was the only one to oppose the unpopular Iraq war. Clegg has also slipped into his manifesto a promise that British troops will be out of Afghanistan within five years.

On the other hand, he may struggle to explain his enthusiasm for Europe, and for the single currency – an issue on which he has admitted he was wrong.


Patrick Wintour and Nicholas Watt

The GuardianTramp

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