Ben Ffrench reviews the thrills and spills of each leader’s performance.
The starting gun has now officially been fired. On the 30 March, the Prime Minister David Cameron asked the Queen to dissolve parliament. The previous day, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg even appeared in Albert Park, to raise awareness for Oxford West and Abingdon Lib Dem candidate Layla Moran. All over the country, candidates are knocking on the doors of the electorate. The General Election campaign has begun but it all really kicked off in Thursday’s debate, which a seven-way battle including the SNP, The Greens, Plaid Cymru, and UKIP. It is the first major battle of a great war.
One thing is certain, and this was confirmed on Thursday night: this is no two-horse race anymore. Parties such as the The Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru are rising and fuelling anti-Westminster feeling, and this was evident, with the three left-wing leaders, Natalie Bennett, Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood forming a temporary triumvirate of sorts to take on David Cameron. Nick Clegg was back, albeit not as strong as last time – no one said: ‘I agree with Nick’. David Cameron was parading his coalition triumphs for all to see, and Ed Miliband, with his assaults on the camera, also chose to focus almost exclusively on Cameron, frustrated at the Tory leader’s seeming refusal to tackle him face-to-face previously. Last, but definitely not least, Nigel Farage, who took UKIP’s agenda to the forefront of the debate, whatever was happening.
The tone of the debate was very left-wing. Five roughly left-wing leaders faced off against two right-wing leaders, which may have helped some more than others. It is clear that some leaders performed better than others. So, for their performances and not their politics, I give the following analysis:
An interesting performance. He got across Labour’s messages, and connected well with the viewer, if at times a bit too well. When in deep water, the Labour leader’s only tactic was flirt with the camera, which most of the time backfired. This did not bode well for the debate, at times making him seem disengaged and desperate, like a drunk in a nightclub. I don’t know if this is one of David Axelrod’s strategies, but he needs to change it. Overall though, it went well for him, pushing his trump card on the public’s trusting of Labour on the NHS, and putting forward a reasonable and strong position on the deficit, despite being under fire from the left and right, either being seen as not proposing enough cuts (the right) or just another of the Westminster elite proposing too many (the left). It is clear he is drawing level with Cameron, with opinion polls showing him just 8% behind The Tory leader on personal ratings, compared to 45% in November last year. He did a good job. 7/10
Smooth-talking as he is, this was not Cameron’s night. Attacked from all sides of the house throughout the debate, he was outnumbered and weakened, but he did his best to combat it, firing on all cylinders with NHS statistics and impressive news of a stronger economy, which he will focus on. But he couldn’t defend himself when attacked on the government’s social mobility record, and track record on poverty, made worse by the fact that the Old Etonian almost never gives straight answers to straight questions and went too much for the soundbites. It didn’t help when he was heckled by a member of the crowd for his seemingly appalling record on the care of army veterans either. Jolly good show, well done, unlucky. 6/10
NICOLA STURGEON (SNP)
The performance of the night. The Scottish Nationalist was very strong, and clearly not half-cocked – her alliance with the other fringe parties was a masterstroke. Whilst being fully engaged in the overall debate, she relished the chance to take on Cameron, triumphing over him, and gaining much support. Her anti-austerity agenda was also attractive, beating rivals such as Labour and the Lib Dems with it. Other smart rhetoric included her anti-Westminster tirade, opening and closing statements, and defence of healthcare and education, which were good. Many English viewers will now be disappointed they can’t vote for the SNP, and she’s worked PR wonders for the party in a way that Alex Salmond never could… And it would be a perfect 10, if not for one blunder. She referred to immigration as being good for the economy, but was caught out by Natalie Bennett when the Green leader said that what was more important was the humanitarian factor, which gathered much applause. Overall though, a fantastic performance. 9/10
NIGEL FARAGE (UKIP)
Shockingly bad. Nigel’s tactic going into this debate seemed to be to try mention immigration and the EU as much as possible. This was emphatically achieved. NHS: Health tourism. The economy: ‘We’d have so much more money if we didn’t pay the EU.’ The future: ‘will be grim unless we cap immigration and leave the EU.’ These comments were very unhelpful, making him seem bigoted and obsessive, and he wasted words in what could have been a positive, optimistic plan on the deficit, or outlining his plans to help working people. His one triumph seemed to be holding Cameron to account on his main topic. But he shocked the room with his divisive comment that immigrants coming to the UK shouldn’t be treated for HIV and Aids. Disappointing. 3/10
NICK CLEGG (LIB DEMS)
Poor Nick. This was a far cry from the highs of 2010. From the off, Nick was stuck in a rut, not knowing whether to attack and distance himself from Cameron, or align with him and take credit for Coalition successes. This made him seem slightly two-faced, and certainly did not go down well with the viewer. He also seemed slightly subdued and quieter, not once interrupting and only speaking when the chair told him to. There was not enough passion. However, on a brighter note, positioning himself between Labour and the Tories was a very good move, as well as his stance on immigration on which he came across well. On the whole, a mediocre showing. 5/10
NATALIE BENNETT (THE GREENS)
Now this was excellent. The Green leader came out with a strong, composed and determined showing, not letting the occasion get the better of her. This is very impressive considering her background and dissimilarity to David Cameron’s smooth-talking Etonian upbringing. She was very good at holding Cameron to account, only helped by her alliance with Sturgeon and Leanne Wood. And she was on fire with her humanitarian message, really hitting home. She was strong with her stance on the deficit, trouncing Cameron and Clegg as well as Miliband, with her ‘austerity vs austerity lite’ soundbite. She could have mentioned green issues a bit more in her opening and closing statements, but overall, very good. 8/10
The Welsh will be proud of this showing. This was very hard to fault. Attacking Miliband and the Labour party’s record in Wales went down well. And she really fought her corner, defending and sticking up for the Welsh, which will get votes. A non-committal attitude to cuts deadlines was welcome, and her alliance with Bennett and Sturgeon was also beneficial to her. She could have outlined her plans for Wales slightly better, but that’s being very picky. Strong. 8/10