The Tories hoped, and even expected, that tonight’s TV debate would be a bloodbath for Ed Miliband – and plenty in Labour feared they were right. Assaulted from all sides by Nigel Farage, Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett, he would surely be floored. But against expectations, Miliband was not merely standing at the end of the night but fighting. With David Cameron on the sidelines, he seized the chance to frame himself as a prime minister-in-waiting and used his closing statement to throw down the gauntlet to his opponent: “David Cameron, if you believe this election is about leadership, debate me one-on-one – let the people decide”.
This is not to say there were no uncomfortable moments for Miliband. Nigel Farage proved less of a threat than predicted after unwisely insulting the audience early on by branding them “pretty left-wing” (“Even by the left-wing standards of the BBC”). Scenting blood, Miliband finally launched a full-frontal attack on the Ukip leader: “You want to exploit people’s fears, not address them”. But he found it harder to pin down Nicola Sturgeon and her anti-austerity tag team of Wood and Bennett. “You know there’s a big difference between me and David Cameron,” he told the SNP leader, laying out his dividing lines. But Sturgeon flawlessly replied: “There’s not a big enough difference”. Throughout the night she and her fellow left-wingers presented themselves as “Labour-plus” – serving up more radical versions of the policies offered by Miliband: he promised not to “double the cuts” (as Cameron would), they promised to end them; he promised to cut tuition fees to £6,000, they said he should scrap them; he promised to cap profits for NHS private providers, they said he should abolish them. The Tories will have been pleased by the spectacle of a divided left – even if the Greens have failed to live up to earlier expectations.
But though he won little applause from an audience that seemed almost suspiciously favourable towards Sturgeon, Miliband’s real audience were the centrist voters at home who lean towards Labour but doubt its credibility. Tonight’s debate allowed Miliband to continually present himself as the sensible moderate between the extremes of left and right. He promised a “balanced and fair” plan on the deficit and refused to be dragged towards profligacy by his radical opponents. On immigration he argued that the solution was neither to close the door nor to throw it wide open. On Trident, he rebutted the Tory claim that he would relinquish Britain’s ultimate defence and sounded prime ministerial on the subject of national security. That may have been the biggest benefit of tonight for him. It is often said that Miliband fails the “blink test”: too many voters simply can’t imagine him in No.10. But it will be far easier for them to do so after tonight. He filled the prime ministerial void on the stage.
By far his toughest opponent was Sturgeon. But even against her, he summoned more firepower than before. “I’ve fought Tories all my life,” he cried, reminding the audience of how the SNP helped bring the Conservatives to power in 1979. “You want to gamble on getting rid of the Tories,” he continued, “I can guarantee it”. After the epochal shift in Scotland perhaps nothing can stem the SNP’s rise. But Miliband may have forced at least some voters to question their assumptions.
The Tories remain satisfied that Cameron made the right calculation by ducking a head-to-head debate – and Miliband’s performance has vindicated that judgement. But tonight did not run according to their script. The “weak” Ed Miliband has rarely seemed so strong. Cameron may not debate him but the people will still soon decide – and Miliband did himself much good tonight.
Update: In line with my view, the only post-debate poll – by Survation – has Miliband in front. The numbers are: Miliband 35 per cent, Sturgeon 31 per cent, Farage 27 per cent, Bennett 5 per cent, Wood 2 per cent. More significantly, Miliband leads Cameron as preferred PM by 45-40 among those who watched the debate.