It was Ed Miliband who had the most to gain from tonight’s TV event – and he did. He was better-prepared, more fluent and more inspiring than David Cameron, reminding us of the qualities that enabled him to defeat his brother for the Labour leadership in 2010 (a subject raised several times). As one aide told me afterwards: “That’s why David Cameron doesn’t want to go head-to-head with Ed Miliband”.
The evening started badly for the PM as a forensic Jeremy Paxman pressed him on foodbanks, zero-hours contracts and his net migration pledge. Faced with the kind of sustained scrutiny he rarely endures, Cameron was nervy and rattled. “That’s not the question,” he helplessly pleaded when asked whether he could live on a zero-hours contract, a slip that provoked guffaws in the press room. He never recovered from these missteps and rarely appeared in control.
After this mauling, the Q&A with a studio audience came as welcome relief. Only once was he troubled, when a questioner recalled his broken pledge not to impose a “top-down reorganisation” on the NHS. Cameron made no attempt to deny this, instead changing the subject to health spending. But the otherwise soft and banal questions didn’t require him to break sweat. Cameron never dazzled but after his tortuous encounter with Paxman a solid, gaffe-free session was enough.
When Miliband appeared before the same audience it became immediately clear why he chose to go second having won the coin toss. He swiftly capitalised on Cameron’s slip on zero-hours contracts, pledging a crackdown and framing his opponent as elitist and out-of-touch. Asked to name Cameron’s best qualities, he didn’t miss a beat, praising his introduction of equal marriage and his commitment to the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target. There were awkward moments when he was questioned on his brother (describing their relationship as “healing”, rather than healed) and on New Labour’s record but at no point did he flounder. Having been labelled as “gloomy” by one audience member at the outset he managed to deploy humour and wit (self-deprecatingly referring to his bacon sandwich moment).
But against expectations, it was during his clash with Paxman that Miliband truly flourished. Unlike Cameron, who melted under the heat of the rottweiler’s questions, he fought fire with fire. “You’re important, Jeremy, you’re not that important,” he declared when Paxman suggested a hung parliament was pre-destined, a line that prompted thigh-slapping approval from Nigel Farage in the spin room. He turned his perceived weakness to his advantage, presenting himself as a leader who had been continually “underestimated”, a man who was told he couldn’t beat his brother (he did) and who was told he couldn’t become prime minister (he can). He may have gone too far when he declared: “Am I tough enough? Hell yes.” (a line straight out of a bad American action movie) but the abiding image was of a man up for the fight. His superior performance was a reminder of one defining advantage: an opposition leader has far more time to prepare than a prime minister.
The instant Guardian/ICM poll gave Cameron victory by 54-46 – but Labour will settle for dramatically reducing the PM’s long-standing advantage (Miliband often trails by as much as 20 points). Among the small but significant group of voters who changed their mind after the debate, 56 per cent backed Labour and just 30 per cent backed the Tories. Tonight’s result demonstrated why this format favours Miliband – a man who cannot fail to come across better than his press tormentors would like. He may have been denied the prize of a head-to-head clash with Cameron but he still has three more TV opportunities to further erode his rival’s crumbling lead.