David Dimbleby chaired the final TV debate. Photo: BBC
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What we learned from the three leaders in the TV election Question Time debate

A verdict on David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg’s performances on the last televised leaders’ debate.

David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg each separately answered questions from a studio audience during the last televised leaders’ election debate. How did they do?

David Cameron

The Prime Minister had a tough start (indeed, all three of them did) by walking on stage to a hammering from the audience on welfare cuts. Recent accusations that he would cut child benefit as part of his party’s proposed £12bn cuts to the welfare bill hurt him heavily at the beginning of the debate. He was forced to retort: “Child benefit is the key part of family's budgets in the country.” Never a good look for a leader who's already seen by many struggling in this country as the axeman.

He also took some hits on the NHS, repeatedly having to counter the claim that the Tories can’t be trusted with it. However, he was clearly very assured on, and prepared for, the topic – a perverse vindication of the Tories’ uncosted promise to funnel £8bn into the health service – and delivered a passionate defence. He spoke emotively about “the love” he felt he received from the NHS when his disabled son was in hospital. He managed to rescue his party on the public service questions that threatened to completely wrongfoot him.

Audience members will be frustrated by his constant insistence on discussing “working people” – probably the loudest dogwhistle of this election campaign. People who work also claim benefits – something he miraculously managed to remember when the presenter David Dimbleby reminded him (when discussing immigration) that most EU migrants don’t claim unemployment benefits.

Though he gave a confident performance, he left on a bad note, as the audience accused him of insulting their intelligence by failing to give a straight answer on forming a coalition. “Winning by a mile is a good hope, but what if you don’t?” said one. “Treat voters with the intelligence they have by answering their questions.”

Ed Miliband

The Labour leader too was immediately plunged into hot water when he was asked whether Labour can be trusted with the economy. He wasn’t given the opportunity to talk about the budget “responsibility lock” in his manifesto (a posh way of saying “We can pay for it. Probably."), as the audience was more interested in the last Labour government’s record:

“Do you accept Labour overspent in government?” “No I don't.” “Not even with all the borrowing?” “No.”

A controversial response, particularly from a leader who usually has no qualms about distancing himself from the New Labour years.

The way he disagreed in general with many of the audience members and the premise of some of Dimbleby’s questions was honest, but I think it was too combative an approach for such a format and wouldn’t have played well with a lot of viewers. “I don’t agree with them”; “I’ve got a different plan”; “I don’t agree.” It was all a bit negative.

The most notable, and confident, part of his performance was his stance on working with the SNP. He repeatedly ruled out working with the Scottish nationalists in any way – even if that means being unable to take power.

“We’re not going to have a coalition, we’re not going to have a deal, and if it means not being in government then so be it. I’m not going have a Labour government if it means deals and coalitions with the SNP. Coalition, confidence-and-supply, I’m not doing that, I’m not doing that.”

Although, as George reported, Miliband is working on the assumption that he can rule with a minority, he may regret being so adamant. Not only will it probably be unacceptable to go back on a no-coalition promise this time round (in 2010, the Tories and Lib Dems were outwardly against coalition, and then did it anyway), but Nicola Sturgeon’s become rather popular with many left-leaning English voters. Why count her MPs out when they could be helpful, just to stave off the Tories’ rather flat attack message that he’s “dancing to Scotland’s tune”?

Oh, and he tripped when he walked off stage. So really nothing else he said will count, if you read certain newspapers tomorrow morning.

Nick Clegg

The poor Deputy Prime Minister. He was immediately subjected to a Two Minutes Hate on tuition fees and never really recovered. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the audience questions were about trust – and how he and the Lib Dems had shattered it.

“Why would we ever believe anything else you say?” was the enduring theme.

A rather tired refrain. More telling was how the audience isn’t buying Clegg’s “differentiation” strategy. One excellent question was about whether leaking secrets his party was privy to in coalition would make it likely he would be “invited into a future coalition”. Another good point, simply made, was: “David Cameron says you were a great team and now you slag him off.”

This is something I’ve never understood. If Clegg sells himself as the ideal coalition partner, why is his party being so poisonous towards its coalition partners, and about its time in coalition?

A frustrating fudge on coalition by Clegg was his phrasing about working with the party that has the "mandate" to rule. The party "that gets the most votes and the most seats has the right to make the first move," he said. This isn't true. It also gives away nothing about whether or not he would prop up a Labour government that has fewer seats, even if it does gain more votes, which is a likely outcome.

But points to Clegg for keeping his cool. One particularly cruel questioner asked if he has retirement plans after he loses his job next week and becomes “an irrelevance”. “Charming. No,” was his reply. And you can’t help being impressed that this man still hasn’t given up the fight, even if it could well be the bitter end.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit