2 Apr 2015

Leaders debate: how the night unfolded

Natalie Bennett was not surprisingly nervous and sounded clipped but got her message across. Nigel Farage started sweaty … I wonder what he’ll look like after two hours under these lights.


Nick Clegg looked pretty relaxed unchanged from the man who stood in the debates in 2010. In Tory rehearsals it’s been said Nick Clegg came across better than any of the other leaders, even after 5 years of being mutilated by opponents.

Nicola Sturgeon was equally confident, no looking down at notes – she has made something like this short minute many times. She ended with a promise of “progressive politics for all of us,” a clear bid to make clear she gets that this is a general election and involves the whole UK.

David Cameron, like others looking up at the clock occasionally, gave a word perfect script – again, the one he’s done before on many occasions.

Leanne Wood made no attempt to address the whole of the UK and simply threw everything into an address to the Welsh.

Ed Miliband gave a word perfect opening statement. His advisers talk about him sometimes being “in the zone” and sometimes not. He seems reasonably in the zone on first evidence.

Someone seems to be irritated by a dry cough but I can’t work out who is suffering.


OS 1004-02 20-07-37Leanne Wood threw herself into the Left attack on Ed Miliband. Ed Miliband nodded as she spoke of the problems of the neglected valleys in Wales. Nicola Sturgeon put it to Ed Miliband “why did you vote for £30bn of cuts?” Then Natalie Bennett chipped in supportively – “Nicola Sturgeon is right” (on austerity) – maybe this will become the catchphrase? It’s the Nat/Green pincer that some around Ed Miliband worried would happen.

David Cameron had one of the moments he most hopes will get on the news bulletins waving his hand down the row of other leaders saying what he was hearing was “more debt” and “more taxes” repeatedly. Nicola Sturgeon took David Cameron on, standing side by side, on welfare cuts in a way her supporters will love.

They move onto the NHS which is an area they will all have expected but it’s worth saying they didn’t know the subjects that would come up for sure.

The party backrooms are furiously firing out their versions of how their leaders have done. One of the excitements in the Ed Miliband camp after the Paxman/Burley experience was how many people googled their leader’s name after the programme … so if you want to doctor the measurements of success start googling your favourite leader.

I have no idea how Julie Etchingham is managing it but she is somehow keeping a tally of timings and keeping things balanced. It’s an extraordinary achievement. I wonder how this whole thing would’ve gone if it was all male.

Nigel Farage had a pop at Scotland with a flavour of something that hasn’t really surfaced since dissolution but which will no doubt be heard more in the coming weeks, perhaps even more afterwards. He said: “English taxpayers are a bit cheesed off with so much of their money going over Hadrian’s Wall.”


OS 1004-02 20-16-03

Natalie Bennett proved to be the first to accuse Nigel Farage of trading on fear over immigration (Nigel Farage started the NHS debate talking about health tourism). Nicola Sturgeon quickly waded in on that too saying there was nothing he wouldn’t blame on foreigners. Let’s see if David Cameron or Ed Miliband say anything similar.

This is more or less exactly how David Cameron wanted a debate to be if it had to happen at all. But it’s striking the equality of standing it affords the leaders, diminishing his voice no matter how Prime Ministerial he tries to make sure he sounds.

Nick Clegg won a nod of approval from David Cameron when he defended the government against claims it was privatising the NHS and said Labour started it and the Coalition reined it back. Ed Miliband again turns direct to the camera and focuses on the future which is clearly an agreed approach his team thinks will help him be the candidate of change.

Nigel Farage will have scored a massive connection with his vote with the cut-through claim that 60 per cent of people diagnosed with Aids are foreign. Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon will have pleased their supporters piling in against Nigel Farage. All we heard off camera was Ed Miliband saying a supportive “mmm.”

Leanne Wood sometimes sounds like she is on “Just A Minute” in opening statements then warms up. Natalie Bennett hasn’t had any brain fade. No-one (yet) is under-performing, they are all on their game. Who shines may depend on who you liked on the way to the sofa.

I think it is Nigel Farage with the bad cough. Not a whisper from the audience apart from a round of applause for Leanne Wood’s attack on Nigel Farage … makes it quite eerie. Must be hard for crowd-pleaser politicians producing clap-lines to deathly silence.


OS 1004-02 20-04-09Big laugh from the audience for Nigel Farage. David Cameron says “look at my record on Europe.” Nigel Farage says: “I have.” The question from the audience on immigration is turning attention on to Europe. The audience is generally warming up a bit and that will warm up the politicians.

David Cameron ushered in one of the most cacophonous moments of the debate so far trying to attack Nigel Farage for letting Ed Miliband in by the back door – notably three of the four male leaders talking over each other.

David Cameron described the immigration issue as a “three-sided coin,” which is challenging thought and was one of the few lines produced so far that probably wasn’t rehearsed.

Nick Clegg gets a brief round of applause (were they signalled to shut up?) saying we should be open-hearted about foreign people coming here. His supporters will love Mr Clegg taking Mr Farage on.

Nicola Sturgeon takes Nigel Farage on directly again in contrast with Ed Miliband. His supporters might argue he doesn’t want to give Ukip publicity but they’ve kind of got that already by turning up. When Nigel Farage brought up health tourism Ed Miliband said words to the effect that we have to address that problem.

Ed Miliband repeatedly uses versions of the phrase :”If I am prime minister…” It’ll be a well-rehearsed line to convey authority, help waverers over the line into believing he could hold the job.

When it comes to the end of programme polls, remember there are two types of post-debate polls. The ones that come immediately after the event you might think are the most trustworthy. But we all get our opinions from other filters too. The polls that come later based on the coverage, the reporting, the subsequent debate helps to shift opinion too and measuring reaction once all that has settled down is as important if not more so.


OS 1004-02 20-04-46

The final question was one the leaders might not have predicted – what about the youth? But it plays into Ed Miliband’s agenda particularly well.

Nick Clegg faced up to the tuition fee issue rather than waiting for another leader to bring it to his door. He then waded into David Cameron with another direct jab over not giving money to schools. David Cameron jabbed back that Mr Clegg was applying a pick and mix approach to the coalition they both served. Ed Miliband said they’re attacking each other and they’re both right.

I reckon that is an exchange that will make its way into some news bulletin edits. Nick Clegg then attacked Ed Miliband as “pious” and ordered him to apologise for crashing the economy.  Rather like a playground scene, David Cameron then piled in on Ed Miliband. Again, the men arguing amongst themselves raised the noise level. This time Natalie Bennett came in with a different, calmer tone. The different gender approaches to debate is quite striking.

A heckler interrupted twice then we heard an off-stage clunk as she was ushered out of a heavy studio door.

Nigel Farage lamented a Britain that is littered at the top of politics with the products of private schools. Keen-eyed observers of the profile of Nigel Farage we transmitted will recall he is a product of one of those himself.

If this has any impact I would expect it to fuel some more support for the smaller parties following what looks to date in the campaign like a bit of strengthening for the main two. In the case of Scotland, the polls suggest SNP support can’t grow much more. The SNP will be hoping it seals the deal with the Labour deserters who’ve come to the SNP fold since the referendum. I would expect Ukip to get a boost. I would expect it to raise Ed Miliband’s personal ratings too, a climb that Tory strategists always thought TV events  might open up and which the polls already suggest is in process.

The Tories will now hope that their friends in Fleet Street turn their guns on Mr Miliband to batter down his ratings closer to where they started. David Cameron’s hope will be that in the case of Ukip that doesn’t last but in the case of the Greens and the Nationalists it runs riot.

They were all, through to the end, pretty much on their game. How high Ed Miliband’s game can go may come as a surprise to some who hadn’t paid him much attention and his rising ratings may be one of the stories that emerges. But David Cameron timed this to be far enough away from the election finishing line to neutralise any advantages gained here in Manchester tonight and erode any mini surges the next few days might show.

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