27 Mar 2015

Cameron drops his Flashman style, Miliband comes out fighting

The headline conclusion from the C4/Sky TV election special (it wasn’t a debate) is that voters aren’t so easily swung by an 18-minute TV interview. Most political watchers agree : Ed Miliband handled Paxman better than David Cameron, and neither leader had any trouble with Kay Burley’s audience.

So why did David Cameron come out on top in both the ICM and YouGov instant polling? Because that’s where he was before the debate, and it takes more than a few clever lines to change people’s minds.

Paxman’s approach to both interviews was to go for the quick knockout. He didn’t have time, tragically, for a long and forensic battle. David Cameron’s approach to Paxman was probably a mistake. Instead of the uber-confident Flashman style he adopts in PMQs, he’d decided to avoid accusations of arrogance. Instead he looked a bit rattled, perhaps even scared.

Paxman’s questions didn’t reveal anything new about policy or intentions but they showed us what Cameron looks like when he’s a bit intimidated.

Ed Miliband, by contrast, came out fighting – perhaps too much at times. The risk is always looking a bit shrill or aggressive, especially for older and women voters who find it a turn-off. But his digs at whether Paxman had been talking to David Cameron on the tube, and that he was “important but not that important”, were surprising and confident.

Miliband was also helped by the fact Paxman had less to throw at him than he had against Cameron. While the opening attack on Cameron about poverty and looking out of touch drew a little blood, Miliband managed to throw his interrogator with his predictable admission of failure on immigration.

All of this means David Cameron’s team were quite right to do what they could to minimise the debates. As prime minister he risks losing authority while Ed Miliband can only gain. The big question for Labour is: can they do enough in these TV appearances to make a difference? There is little reason to think so looking back at 2010, but every election is different. That also assumes he doesn’t falter in the ITV debate or other interviews along the campaign. And that’s a big assumption.

I suspect Cameron will adopt a quite different approach in the ITV debate as he will be facing what will almost certainly be an aggressive and confident Nigel Farage swinging wildly at him. Farage will probably target Cameron more than Miliband, and the prime minister will have to show authority and intelligence but also a bit of swagger to defeat it.

Ed Miliband, by contrast, might struggle to make as much of an impact. The danger for him comes from the SNP, who know he is the first Labour leader in a long time looking to be less popular in Scotland than his Tory counterpart.

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