Chaos was what some predicted the UK’s first seven-way leaders’ debate would bring. But with the exception of a few moments (including the heckling of David Cameron) the event was not the anarchic occasion that many forecast. Instead, it was closer to what one Cameron aide described in advance as a “democratic bore-athon”, lacking the drama and tension of last week’s Paxman interrogations. There was no unambiguous winner at the end of the two hours, a fact borne out by the post-debate polls. YouGov gave it to Nicola Sturgeon, ComRes had Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage tied and ICM put Miliband ahead of Cameron by a point (25-24).
The Prime Minister will be more than satisfied with that murky result. Having avoided a dangerous head-to-head with Miliband, this confusing outcome was exactly what he hoped for. The Labour leader tried valiantly to turn the debate into a contest between himself and Cameron, turning his fire on the PM at every opportunity, but he constantly ran up against the limits of the format, never quite able to land the knock-out blow he craved.
After last week’s sub-par performance, Cameron was again unimpressive tonight: technocratic and flat. But on a stage this crowded it cost him far less than it should have done. The Prime Minister will have been cheered by the force of the attacks mounted on Miliband by Nicola Sturgeon, whose formidable performance will help sustain the remarkable SNP surge (the party gained 1,200 members tonight). Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett were less impressive but their mere presence on a national platform will have been enough to attract some floating voters to their camps. Miliband was continually outflanked on austerity, Trident and privatisation; this was the Tories’ “split the left” strategy in action. Miliband has much to fear from the forthcoming “challengers’ debate” when the four smaller parties will concentrate their fire on him alone.
Nigel Farage reminded us of why Ukip has travelled so far under his leadership, consistently producing the most memorable lines of the night (while shamelessly pandering to xenophobia, most notably when he complained of the NHS treating foreign HIV sufferers – a remark that prompted a fine rebuke from Wood, who earned the first applause of the night). But it is doubtful whether tonight’s debate, on the eve of the Easter break (another tactical triumph for the Tories), will allow his party to regain its former momentum.
Cameron looked profoundly uncomfortable at points – embarrassed by all sides over his failure on the deficit, lashed by Miliband on the NHS (“Is this what protection looks like?”) and skewered by Farage on Europe (“Look at my track record on Europe” – “I have!”) – but he avoided the kind of gaffe or slip that has the potential to change the shape of the race. For the Tories, that is cause for hope. There are increasing signs that their long-standing advantage on leadership and the economy is finally beginning to translate into a national poll lead. Tonight’s YouGov survey has them on 37 per cent – their best rating for three years and equal to their 2010 British share – with Labour two behind. It was fear of such a trend that explains why Miliband was so desperate to debate Cameron and definitively establish himself as a PM-in-waiting. Tonight, he succeeded in playing a bad hand well. But the game has not changed. And it is Cameron who will go home happiest.