It was the audience, rather than any one of the party leaders, that was the star of tonight’s Question Time special. David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg were all strapped on the torture rack as soon as they took to the stage. With laser-like precision, the opening questioners homed in on a key weakness of each leader: Cameron’s evasiveness on welfare cuts, Miliband’s vulnerability on borrowing, Clegg’s broken promise on tuition fees. Tonight was an exercise in mere survival for all three men.
If no one dazzled it was Cameron who proved most resilient. After his flat performance in the earlier debates, the PM raised his game (as incumbents so often do), breaking from the Crosby script and pursuing a more engaged and passionate style. Faced with a barrage of questions on welfare cuts, he didn’t fold under pressure and managed to turn the scrutiny to his advantage by hailing the government’s record on welfare reform (an issue on which he knows most voters side with the Tories). But Labour drew comfort from his refusal three times to rule out cutting child benefit again. “The issue is on the ballot paper,” one aide told me afterwards. Cameron found himself in treacherous territory again on the NHS, bluntly asked why the Tories weren’t trusted on the issue. But relief came when a questioner challenged his promise to spend £8bn more on the health service (describing it as “unsustainable”) – the PM was instantly handed a chance to cast himself as a generous friend of the NHS – even if he stretched credulity when he described it as his “life’s work” (one imagined Nye Bevan rising from his grave to challenge that claim).
If the Tories were satisfied with Cameron’s performance, it was Miliband’s that truly cheered them. The Labour leader was repeatedly pinned down on the deficit, attracting jeers after replying “No, I don’t” when asked if he accepted that the last Labour government overspent. It didn’t get any easier for Miliband as he was forced to defend his wish to return Ed Balls to the Treasury. It was precisely for reasons such as these that Labour devoted the first page of its manifesto to fiscal responsibility. But Miliband’s refusal to say that the last government overspent will reignite the debate within the party over whether he should have done much more to combat its profligate reputation.
After these painful exchanges, the subject of deals with the SNP came as welcome relief. Miliband went even further than before in ruling out any formal pact with the nationalists, explicitly stating that there would be no “confidence and supply arragement”. Even more significantly, he vowed not to “barter away” Labour’s manifesto by entering coalition. As I revealed in this week’s NS, Miliband’s preference is for minority government in a hung parliament.
To Labour’s relief, he improved as the session went on, dealing more adroitly with the issues of welfare and immigration than the deficit. He finished on a strong note, applauded as he vowed to be the first prime minister “to under-promise and over-deliver, not over-promise and under-deliver”. But he didn’t come close to the breakthrough moment that he hoped for. As he left the stage, the Labour leader briefly stumbled – an apt representation of his performance.
After the two men fighting to become prime minister, the apperance of Nick Clegg couldn’t help but feel like an anti-climax. At one point, the Lib Dem leader self-deprecatingly conceded that he wouldn’t be PM. Indeed, he will be fortunate to return as an MP, a point that arose when he was asked “Do you have plans when you become unemployed?” (“How charming. No,” he replied). Though many of those in the spin room had lost attention by the end (as George Osborne et al arrived on site), Clegg turned in another fluent and confident performance. Perhaps no politician in this parliament has proved more resilient. He delivered the best line of the night in response to Cameron’s characterisation of coalition as “lying down in a dark room” with him: “If either of them think they’re going to win a majority they need to go lie down in a darkened room”. But it was impossible to shake the sense that no matter what Clegg says or does nothing will compensate for his two original sins: entering coalition with the Tories (the act that led to the almost immediate collapse in the Lib Dems’ ratings) and breaking his pledge to oppose any increase in tuition fees.
The initial impression that Cameron fared best was supported by the Guardian/ICM poll, which had the PM on 44 per cent, Miliband on 38 per cent and Clegg on 19 per cent. The gap between the Labour leader and Cameron was narrower than in many other surveys. But Labour, which hoped that Miliband would again thrive in this unmediated setting, will regard tonight as a missed opportunity. The outcome of the election is no clearer than before. But in this high-risk setting, it is Cameron, as the incumbent, who will be most relieved. Tonight, at least, he was on top.