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‘To think of a UK General Election with no TV debate is now laughable’

Televised leaders' debates are now a fixture in the British General Election calendar and it would be “laughable” to imagine future contests without them, the host of Thursday's historic broadcast said last night.

Alastair Stewart said that the first televised leaders' debate in British electoral history had “absolutely exceeded all of our expectations” and succeeded both in terms of viewing figures and the democratic process.

The veteran ITV newscaster was alone with Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg backstage in Manchester for eight minutes before they walked on stage, and said that all three were showing clear signs of nerves.

“It was absolutely intriguing,” said Mr Stewart. “What I saw backstage were three incredibly nerv

ous powerful figures, no longer surrounded by their minders and advisers. Once they were on the stage, you could see they were able to switch back into their normal political performer mode.”

Only a few words were exchanged by the leaders as they prepared for the potentially decisive showdown. Their last comments were to agree that at the end of the show they would pause at the front of the stage to shake hands for the camera.

In the event, Mr Brown strode off stage to glad-hand the audience, to the evident surprise of the other two, who hesitated before following him. “They weren't expecting it, but it was fine,” said Mr Stewart. “It made a nice piece of television.”

Mr Stewart said it was very difficult for him to judge as host which of the leaders “won” the ITV1 debate, but it was clear that the event as a whole was a success.

“The idea of having a General Election in the UK without televised debates ever again is now laughable,” he said.

And he was in no doubt that the debates will be good for democracy, after viewing figures peaked at 10.4 million.

“For the channel of X Factor and I'm A Celebrity to give 90 minutes of prime-time airtime to pure politics and to get more viewers than Coronation Street proves that there is an appetite for it,” said Mr Stewart. “It's a huge slice of the available audience and it's ordinary folk who just wanted to hear what these guys had to say and it helps them decide which way to vote on May 6.”

Each leader took their own approach to the debate, he said.

Mr Clegg seemed to have decided from the start of the debate that he was going to “talk directly to the audience and through them to the people at home”.

Meanwhile, to watch Mr Brown was to see “a debating master at work”, engaging closely with the details of the issues raised.

And Mr Cameron “came into it thinking it was going to be a case of showing the normal 'DC' and then began to sense that maybe the other two were not performing in the way he had anticipated and began to change tack”.

Belfast Telegraph