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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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