26 Mar 2015

Cameron and Miliband: the battle for No 10 begins

David Cameron and Ed Miliband clash with Jeremy Paxman in the first public contest leading up to the general election, and take a grilling from the public on their records and future promises.

Six weeks out from the general election, David Cameron and Ed Miliband were quizzed by Jeremy Paxman in leaders’ interviews that fell short of the full-blown debate many had wanted.

Parrying questions from a live audience marshalled by Kay Burley, they both faced some cutting questions on their policy record and performance in politics.

Some honest admissions from both leaders came on the topic of how people are coping with poverty, especially those on zero hours contracts.

Asked whether he would survive on an exclusive zero hours contract, Mr Cameron said: “I couldn’t live on one of those and that’s why we’ve outlawed them.”

He said the growth of food banks had arisen “partly because of the difficulties we’ve faced as a country”, and that “some people choose a zero hours contract”.

“Jobs that are the best route out of poverty,” he said. “Only one in 50 jobs is a zero hours contract.

“I want to create a country where more people have the opportunity of the full time work that they want.”

When asked if he could live on a zero hours contract, Mr Miliband said: “I couldn’t either”. But he promised to bring in a “legal right to a regular contract” if he won an outright majority in the election.

The deficit

Mr Cameron admitted to some failings in his government’s five-year term, including on the national deficit.

“If you’re saying we haven’t gone fast enough to cut the deficit I agree,” he said.

And he conceded again that he had not met the “no ifs no buts” pledge he made in 2010 to get net immigration down to the tens of thousands over the course of the parliament.

“We have not met the commitment that I made, I fully accept that.”

What had the last Labour government got wrong before it was thrown out of office in 2010?

“We were too relaxed about inequality, the gap got bigger,” Mr Miliband said.

Pressed on whether Labour had spent too much in its last administration, he said: “I think there were spending programmes that perhaps weren’t as good as they could have been. The dome was not a good example… no government gets it completely right.”

When asked about immigration, the Labour leader said: “I think that we can bring in controls on immigration, sensible controls.”

However, Mr Miliband would not “pluck a figure out of the air” for a maximum limit.â??

Personal questions

The Labour leader faced a series of personal questions from Jeremy Paxman, including whether he was made of the right stuff to be prime minister.

“Am I tough enough? Hell, yes, I’m tough enough,” he said.

“You need a toughness in this job. I’ve been underestimated at every turn.”

Did he care what people said about him – in the newspapers, by the public?

“It is water off duck’s back,” he said. “I don’t care what the newspapers write about me. The bloke on the Tube can say what he likes – I don’t care.”

Jeremy Paxman asked Mr Cameron whether had surrounded himself with wealthy people who got into trouble.

But the prime minister said the jibe was “completely unjustified”. He defended his public comments on Jeremy Clarkson days before the BBC decided not to renew his contract over a “fracas” with a Top Gear producer.

“Treating the people you work with badly is not acceptable,” he said.

Asked about the government’s appointment of Lord Stephen Green – former boss of HSBC – he said the decision had been accepted by all sides at the time.

“I don’t know whether there was wrongdoing subsequently at HSBC, we’ll have to see,” Mr Cameron said. “I didn’t ask him about that specific question.”

Mutual respect?

Would Mr Miliband go so far as sharing a drink with Mr Cameron?

He said: “I don’t know whether we’d have a pint,” adding: “We’d share a bacon sandwich or something.”

And what did Ed Miliband respect about David Cameron?

“His commitment to equal marriage – it was hard in his party, it was the right thing to do for the country,” Mr Miliband said.

He also praised the prime minister’s “commitment to overseas development”, adding: “He took a risk in the Conservative party by saying ‘this is the right thing to do’.”

The same question was put to Mr Cameron by an audience member – what did he respect about Ed Miliband?

“When we had to take difficult decisions about sending British forces in to help with others to defeat Isil [Islamic State], the murderous death cult in Iraq, he stepped forward and said ‘Yes, this is the right to do, David, let’s do that together and vote together in the House of Commons’. I admired that.”

The two leaders will clash in a debate-proper on 2 April, where they will also face Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, Ukip’s Nigel Farage, Natalie Bennett of the Green party, Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP, and Leanne Wood from Plaid Cymru.

This will be followed by five-way debate on 16 April with Messrs Clegg and Cameron absent.

Messrs Cameron, Miliband and Clegg will also feature separately in a BBC Question Time special on 30 April – just a week before the nation goes to the polls.