9pm (JP) Scheduled against Eastenders and Coronation Street, this was always going to be a warm-up to the main event; the leaders’ debates. But instructive nevertheless. A big thanks here to Ian Mulheirn from the Social Market Foundation for providing intellectual ballast. (He moved house only yesterday and may have some apologies to make when he arrives home. Heroic).

8.58pm (AB) It’s all over. A lively if completely unenlightening debate. Who would have thought there was an election on? In picking a winner, it is always worth remembering that it is not relative performance that is important. It’s about what the public thought of you before the debate — and whether that changes. Darling made no big mistakes. There were a couple of decent gags and some flashes of passion, which may have surprised some viewers. Osborne stood his ground and certainly looked calm. The negative side was that he made little of the National Insurance announcement and sometimes looked like he was being ganged up on. Cable threw and landed the most punches. But the fact the other two didnt even bother to discuss Lib Dem policy was telling.

8.55pm (AB) Some thoughts from Chris Cook, a star FT leader writer:

Vince is winning, so far, cementing his place as the cabbie’s favourite politician. Smashed MPs and bankers in his intro minute, and clobbered Osborne over the (beserk-in-a-recession) IHT cut.

8.53pm (JP). They are wrapping up. Darling boasts (sotto voce) about having made the right calls. Job opportunities are the main thing, he says. Vince says “who can you trust?”. Labour led Britain into “this mess” and wasted money on over-centralised public services, argues Cable. He doesn’t like the Tories either. “Now they want another chance to get their noses in the trough and reward their rich backers.” St Vince isn’t being so saintly right now. Don’t hold back chap. Last but not least, Osborne is summing up. He points out, rightly, that Labour has been in power for 13 years. “They took one of the strongest economies in Europe and now we have one of the weakest.” It’s a powerful argument. You only have one chance to get Labour out, he says.

8.50pm (AB) From Ian: “Lots of talk about youth unemployment. But the reality is that lots of young people are flying off the jobless rolls much faster than older people. And the consequences of unemployment for older people are worse.”

8.48pm: (JP) Darling has just talked about discussing the big issues with his son last night. A risky strategy. In 1980 Jimmy Carter was mocked for insisting that he had been talking about nuclear weapons with his teenage daughter Amy.

8.46pm: (JP) Osborne is insisting that the Tory recipe for the tripartite system – moving most of the FSA into the Bank of England – is the solution to the crash. Vince has just pointed out that he did predict that things might go wrong; to the first cheers of the evening from the audience. “We warned about the lending boom which fuelled the housing market that got out of control,” he said. But even St Vince did not expect the entire banking system to collapse “like a pack of cards“. No one predicted a disaster on that scale, he said.

8.44pm (JP) They have all been talking about the importance of lending as much money as possible via the nationalised banks to small business and the public. No one has raised the inherent tension in this; the fact that the government also needs banks to make a profit so that they can sell off those stakes within a couple of years.

8.42pm (AB) Osborne has a dig at Diamond Bob and his top team at Barclays. Anyone who takes a £64m in bonuses “does not understand what the rest of the country are going through“. He went on to say that there was enough international support to introduce the bank levy unilaterally.

8.38pm (AB) Nice tweet from Tim Montgomerie:

Cable just described people unhappy with 50p tax as “pin-striped Scargills”. I’d call that gold-plated headline-chasing http://is.gd/b5wxg

8.30pm (AB) Not one of the chancellors in waiting could bring themselves to saying the letters V A or T. Wonder what will happen to that tax? Darling did manage a gag though, that went down well with the audience. “Nothing like cross party co-operation George,” he said, after being accused of nicking policies.

8.28pm (AB) Gary Gibbon has some inside dope from the C4 dressing rooms:

By the way, there wasn’t a lot of sweetness and trust ahead of this debate. One speaker didn’t want the dressing room next to another (presumably he thought lastminute war-gaming would be overheard by his rival listening with a tumbler at the wall).

8.28pm (JP) DelBoy asks, “no income tax, no VAT!”. Sorry, Neil Bartlett, a small business owner, asks for a promise of no increase on either income tax or VAT. Forgive the Only Fools/Horses comparison, it’s not personal. Ozzie is talking but I don’t hear anything about VAT. He’s discussing National Insurance: “That’s our priority on avoiding tax.” Is that a complex way of saying that VAT will go up under the Tories?

8.27pm (JP) Shouting. Lots of shouting. Something about death taxes and social care. Darling says there will be an announcement “pretty shortly“. KGM tells the trio to ‘move on‘.

8.25pm (JP) Our new most loyal reader, “Ashcash”, says he has observed the ‘subdued dynamism’ of Darling’s tie. It is grey.

8.21pm (JP) A lady has asked what will happen to public sector pensions. Ian says: “The quickest way to get cash from public sector pension reform would be to increase the contribution rate (an effective pay cut) which tends to be lower than the private sector.” Osborne asks for the three parties to work together on this “emotive” subject – “together we could be able to make some progress.” Darling says there should be a “public” consensus rather than just a political consensus. Then he has a big dig at Ozzie for the Tories’ failure to support Labour on care for the elderly.

8.17pm (AB) “Honest Vince” seems to be relishing playing the two big beasts off against each other. It allows him to seem as if he’s the impartial arbiter, like a second KGM. Two risks to this. Firstly, not many people ever remember that he’s a Lib Dem. Second is that Darling and Osborne may at some point gang up on him. I suspect it will be over the Lib Dem tax cuts.

8.15pm: (JP) A doctor wants to know if the NHS is safe from cuts. Of course Labour and the Tories have both promised to protect the health service from cuts. That may be so, says Ian. But he points out that departments could be redefined to make these pledges stack up – while certain services are cut. As an extreme example, what if health became “health and welfare“? Clearly that won’t happen, but other parts of Whitehall could be tweaked. You can see his point.

8.14pm (JP) Appropos of nothing, I was perusing Who’s Who this afternoon. Vince’s hobbies are walking, dancing and riding. Osborne’s are skiing, walking and the theatre – plus ‘observing US politics’. Darling has no hobbies. At least not in Who’s Who. That seems illustrative of his ‘grey man’ persona.

8.12pm (Ian) Vince claims you can save £5bn by scrapping ID cards. In truth 80 per cent of that money is already locked into the contract – so the best you can salvage is about £1bn, which doesn’t go far compared to the public sector black hole. (The Lib Dems have been in touch to say their policy would only save £100m a year….then again that seems to confirm it’s relatively small beer).

8.10pm (JP) Darling is sounding very stern, attacking Osborne. He’s accusing him of being “irresponsible” for today’s National Insurance promise. I’ve never seen Darling do “angry” before. Interesting. “A spending spree you cannot finance...” Osborne’s riposte is that the numbers are based on Darling’s own claim that £11bn of efficiency savings can easily be found in the system. It’s warming up. Now Vince is piling in. Fight!

8.07pm (JP) All three were asked about their personal qualities. Vince said he dances a fine samba; Darling is an enthusiastic kite-boarder; Osborne plays a mean hand of whist. Sorry, not really. Instead, Vince went on about his experience in the world of “inter-governmental organisations“, Darling said he had “tenacity” during “unimaginable” circumstances and Osborne praised his own sense of “responsibility” and respect for people who worked and saved.

8.03pm (AB) Well, a bullish start from Osborne. Cable played the banker bashing card early. Darling was a bit more flat, seemed to stumble. His verdict that the future of the economy was bright sounded like he was telling his kid their hamster had died. Let’s see if he picks up a bit later.

8.01pm. (JP) “The sooner you deal with the debt problem the better,” says Osborne (so why are you spending £5bn on a national insurance cut?). “We have to start with this huge government deficit,” says Vince. Cable doesn’t like prima donnas in financial services. Ouch. Britain can have a bright future, says Darling. “We have to get our borrowing down to reduce the deficit,” says the chancellor. Does that mean they all agree on the deficit? If only it were that simple.

8pm: (JP) “Who inspires you?” asks Krishnan Guru-Murthy (from now on, KGM).

7.55pm: (JP) We’re all set. Just five minutes to go before the debate between Vince Cable, Alistair Darling and George Osborne (in no particular order).

It’ll be Alex and I along with Ian Mulheirn, director of the Social Market Foundation, the thinktank. As an ex-Treasury official Ian will be providing much-needed intellectual input to our live blog.

It’s an interesting time for the British economy. Mood music suggests that new figures tomorrow will show a revision of GDP data. (If it’s up, great news for Labour, if it’s down, less so). This morning the Tories changed the terms of the economic debate by announcing a surprise cut in National Insurance – or at least a partial reversal of next year’s 1 per cent increase. In doing so (the move will cost about £5bn) the Conservatives have delighted business but, arguably, put a big question mark under their commitment to reducing the deficit. This is likely to dominate tonight’s debate.

Get alerts on UK politics & policy when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article