Battling Brown looked bruised and beaten

IN THE final of the three historic leaders' debates last night, a tired and haunted-looking Gordon Brown desperately sought a way to claw back lost ground in Labour's disastrous election campaign, which has drawn attention to his own lacklustre leadership.

With the novelty of the clash between the three would-be prime ministers beginning to wear thin, the debate exposed not only the Prime Minister to increased scrutiny, but also Conservative leader David Cameron and Nick Clegg, for the Liberal Democrats. At the heart of the exchanges was Mr Cameron's attack on Mr Brown, who again forced himself to apologise – albeit obliquely – for his injudicious remarks on Wednesday about pensioner Gillian Duffy, who he had described as a "bigoted woman".

Responding to Mr Brown's feeble claim that the Conservatives would take Britain back to the 1930s, the Tory leader tellingly accused Mr Brown of being desperate, an attack that will resonate with many voters.

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Although Mr Brown appeared nervous, the other leaders did not have it all their own way, with Mr Cameron failing to make as much as he might of Labour's dismal economic record.

Mr Clegg, the fresh-faced success of the first debate tried too many times to present himself as not like the others, claiming he was not political point-scoring when he was doing just that.

However, the most telling moment of the debates came towards the end when Mr Cameron went in for the kill, ridiculing Mr Brown's attack on him by saying, tellingly, that the Prime Minister had nothing left to say.

In their final statements it was also noticeable that Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg, while not disguising the difficulties ahead, tried to be positive, giving some vision for the future.

Looking tired, worn down, but still fighting on the ropes, Mr Brown was almost entirely negative in attacking both his opponents for the risk he claimed they posed to economic recovery. It was the defining moment of the 270 minutes of debate and cruelly exposed Labour's desperation as the election date approaches.

For all the faults of the restricted format, at the end of this process the voters have seen more of the prime ministerial contenders than ever before and they now have to make a judgment.

In last night's final round of a marathon bout, the battered old bruiser Brown tried to swing his clunking fist, but his hay-makers were drained of power. Next Thursday, the referee – the public – will undoubtedly call a halt to save him further injury.