A points victory for Miliband. Paxman is still the boss.
“The election starts tonight.”
Those were the words of Sky’s Kay Burley - moderator of the audience Q&A in the sensationally named ‘Battle for Number 10’. If you are unaware of her style, Ms Burley is to news what Mario Balotelli is to football; entertaining at times, but thoroughly useless when relied upon.
Her opening phrase sounds quite familiar, doesn’t it? According to the media, the election started at last week’s budget. According to the media, the election started at the turn of the year. According to the media, the election started during party conference season. You get the point.
In reality, the election will not start until 7am on the 7th May. But, thanks to a fixed-term parliament, we have been enduring the posturing and bravado of an election campaign for the last, well, five years.
At the Prime Minister’s request, the definition of the Ancient Greek concept ‘debating’ has been revised for this election. Instead of the previously billed head-to-head between Ed Miliband and David Cameron, what we got was a series of questions from Jeremy Paxman, followed by a smattering of issues posed by a well drilled audience. The leaders were not on stage at the same time.
As UKIP’s Steven Woolfe described it on BBC Question Time, “it was like two boxers, fighting each other in two separate rings, with the same referee”.
UKIP: the voice of reason.
David Cameron, having lost the coin toss, was up first. Jeremy Paxman’s first question set the tone for their exchange.
“Prime Minister, how many people use food banks?”
Cameron did not know. He struggled his way through the ex-Newsnight presenter’s intense questioning. Paxman’s inquisition turned brutal when Cameron was asked whether he could live on a zero hours contract. The Prime Minister was never allowed to get into his stride. Paxman, having stored six months of cynicism and general anger, showed the BBC what they are missing, and showed Labour what they should have been doing for the past five years.
Round one to the referee.
It must be said that the Conservative leader gathered momentum as he went on. By the time he reached the end of the audience questioning, Cameron looked more confident and composed, although visibly affected by Paxman’s mauling.
After waiting 45 minutes in the green room, watching an irrepressible Paxman take apart the PM, Ed Miliband naturally had a nervy start. His first task was choosing where to stand for the audience Q&A. Would it be behind the podium or in front? Miliband decided to do both, as he anxiously paced between the two.
When he called a man named Dean ‘Tim’, Labour spin doctors will have feared it was another of ‘those days’ for Ed.
But, to his credit, Miliband grew in stature - despite a string of muttered attacks from Burley – and gradually won over support from the studio audience and Twitter alike.
One of the most telling moments was when Ed discussed taking on his brother, David, for the Labour leadership. He suggested that their relationship was ‘strained’ at the time, and that it is only now ‘healing’. Slightly emotional and clearly truthful, Miliband’s human side was exposed. Although, Miliband will not want a family debate to draw the media's attention for too long.
Ed’s most impressive answers came in his exchange with Jeremy Paxman. Miliband’s responses were honest and sincere (saying New Labour had “got it wrong” on immigration), and at times bordering on bizarre.
Asked by Paxo whether he was “tough enough” to be Prime Minister, Miliband replied “hell yes I’m tough enough!”
Perhaps the only moment when Paxman did not have the upper hand during the whole evening was when Miliband mocked the presenter’s suggestion that Labour would have to barter with Alex Salmond after the election. “You can’t decide the election. You’re important, Jeremy, but you’re not that important!”
One person who was evidently disappointed by Miliband’s performance was Katie Hopkins. Professional sh*t shovellor, Hopkins vowed to leave the country should Miliband become PM in May.
Surely such a statement will only help his plight.
At the end of the exchange, a rather patronising Paxman asked Miliband whether he was “okay”.
In actual fact, Miliband was more than okay. A brave performance provided an insight into his closely guarded personality and surprised many.
Early polls from ICM and various other pollsters suggested that Cameron just edged Miliband overall: ICM reported a split of 54:46 in favour of the PM, 51:49 YouGov. However, perhaps crucially, the Labour leader seemed to win over more undecided voters. 56% said they would think about voting Labour after the exchange, whereas only 30% said they would consider voting for Cameron.
The challenge now for Miliband is to build momentum in the final three debates. Perhaps low expectations helped his performance to grab plaudits. After a promising first outing however, the Labour Leader cannot expect the same low expectations to be set second time around. Cameron came out lightly bruised, but far from wounded. The battle for Number 10 is still in the balance.