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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.