Expert Comment: the leaders' debate - what did we learn?Tuesday 7 April 2015
Senior Honorary Research Fellow and former Professor of Politics, Professor Bill Jones, analyses the latest political TV debate.
The provenance to this debate lay in David Cameron's strong antipathy to facing Ed Miliband head to head on television. The 2010 party leaders' election debate, the first ever for British Politics, saw Nick Clegg win the first debate by a mile and his party soar to 32% in the polls. This rating declined back down to 24% by election day but was still higher than it otherwise would have been and thus, arguably, denied Tories the overall majority they felt was there for the taking. Cameron's critics have still not stopped attacking him for his stupidity in allowing the debates to take place; his Australian strategist Lynton Crosby insisted that damage inflicted by appearing fearful in refusing to debate would be worth it to reap the rewards of not risking it. As Crosby sees it, Cameron is streets ahead of Ed on economic competence and on leadership. He has pounded Ed so relentlessly in PMQs and elsewhere as 'weak' and a 'waste of space' that he does not want to give Ed the chance of proving to a largely indifferent nation that this 'weird' 'geeky' and 'dangerous' politician might be clever, decent, quite likeable, and even Prime-ministerial.
So the Conservatives stalled and obstructed and refused to agree to a rerun of the 2010 leaders' debates. Instead Cameron insisted only event one was on offer and that was to comprise seven party leaders. Crosby hoped the presence of so many participants would diminish Ed's ability to make an impact and enable the PM to appear as the wise and superior incumbent, above the squabbling fray of minor parties. That was the theory: the reality was substantially different. Cameron was certainly able to exploit his position in power, responsible for 'halving the deficit' and creating the 'fastest growing economy in the developed world', but, shorn of his baying backbenchers in the Commons, he seemed less Olympian and more like just another, and not exactly comfortable, party leader.
And of course, the other six were united in criticism against him, with Plaid Cymru and the SNP lambasting his negative 'austerity' policies. Both Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon were on top form projecting their left of centre nationalism and added to the pressure applied by an assured, articulate and this time gaffe free Ed Miliband. Natalie Bennett survived well in projecting her radically alternative message and completed the trio of impressive performances by women party leaders. And UKIP's Nigel Farage? Well, he was just Nigel, as we have all come to expect: fluent, witty and gleefully iconoclastic. Apart from an injudicious attack on foreign born HIV victims of which Wood claimed (to applause) he should be ashamed, he kept his remarks generally within the bounds of propriety. As for Poor Nick Clegg, the 'mania' of five years ago, must have seemed a distant dream as he struggled to claim credit for stabilising the economy and offer a moderating influence in the future on either excessive Tory cuts or Labour borrowing.
And what did the viewers conclude? Well, nobody landed any knockout blows and nobody was knocked out but the debate was generally well conducted and quite helpful to voters. Cameron was right to fear Ed might appear much more than the 'waste of space' image he has sought to cultivate, and the smaller parties all proved lively, articulate and effective. Polls showed Miliband, Cameron and Farage more or less equal 'winners' with Sturgeon not far behind, but to me it seemed Leanne Wood and Bennett both managed to project their parties with charm and poise. And in support of the multi-party seven sided debate, it illustrated the huge change which has occurred to British politics since the tripartite one five years ago. Indeed there seemed to be no reason why Nigel Dodds, leader of the biggest Northern Ireland party, should not also have participated.