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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”