The Great TV Debate: What to Expect

2 Apr 2015

Tonight will see the second of this election’s broadcast events: a debate between the seven party leaders of the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Green Parties, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and UKIP. It will be the first time a live televised debate in this country has seen so many party leaders occupy one stage, and with political tensions running high, and guidelines for the debates procedure as confusing as they are specific, here’s our rundown of what to expect in tonight’s debate.


How do you get seven party leaders, all with nefarious plots, schemes, and political allegiances to play up to a live TV audience, on stage in a sensible manner? This graphic from the New Statesman shows you how, and shows us some of what we can expect to see.

David Cameron, though predominantly happy not to be near Farage or Miliband, and very much happy to have caused such a ridiculous spectacle of a seven-way debate, will be anxious not to be left to the sidelines. He’ll be trying to juggle looking ‘prime-ministerial’ – aka not that interested and altogether above it all – with actually trying to be heard, especially in the ‘open discussion’ sections of the evening. Expect some camera-hogging when he gets the chance. Cameron won’t be expecting much of a boost from this evening, but will be holding out for a poll surge when the farce of the five-way opposition debate erupts next week and voters despair and scurry back to their PM. Whatever else happens, he’s got the final word as the final speaker to give closing remarks, and so will use this to present himself as the voice of calm in a wilderness of six other ‘not-so-prime-ministerial’ voices. If he can do a good job of the closing remarks, the rest of the debate probably won’t matter that much.


On the other side, with poor media performances in recent months, and a campaign that has been virtually ignored by mainstream media, Natalie Bennett may do one of two things: Either we’ll not hear from her that much, or she’ll have been subject to heavy coaching and preparation  and will come out rather well. If the former is true, it won’t make much difference to the Greens’ chances in the Commons – either they’ll hold on to Brighton Pavilion thanks to local campaigning, or they won’t: Bennett’s performance tonight won’t change that – but it could have a big effect on vote share. With voters increasingly aware of the dangers of a hung parliament, many are returning to the two main parties with a view to stopping the other main party getting in: combined vote share for the two is likely to be higher than in 2010. If she does well, Green support could tick up across the country, and in several seats – making for interesting contests in key spots like Bristol West, Norwich South, and the key marginal of Cambridge.


Nick Clegg won’t enjoy tonight. Unlike last election’s debates, when he had that key chance to open the whole season with his honest-guy speech direct to the camera, Clegg will struggle to shed good light on himself and his party. With Farage – widely held as the winner of the live EU debates they had last year – to his left, and Bennett – holder of many a former Lib-Dem protest vote – on his right, he’s between a rock and a hard place. It’s too early to tell, but early evidence suggests the ‘look left, look right, then cross’ message isn’t sticking, so unless Clegg can come up with something new – as he has done in the past – this debate will fall flat for the Liberal Democrats. Far from the general pick-up in Lib Dem vote share after 2010’s debates, 2015 will be a year in which the Lib Dems cling on to every seat they hold as desperately as they can, with many incumbents making scant (or even no) mention of their party and its leader on campaign material, hoping to get by on local reputation and goodwill.


Leanne Wood will be happy to be next to her fellow nationalist Sturgeon, and glad to be given the sheen of legitimacy accorded by being the man most likely to be next Prime Minister by most current projections. Expect challenges to her right-hand man on austerity, and convivial moments with her left-hand woman on the plight of the smaller nations of the UK.


Nicola Sturgeon is in a good place. She can place herself directly in opposition to David Cameron, the stated public enemy #1 of the Scottish National Party, whilst also remaining close enough to Ed Miliband to agree with him where appropriate and challenge him where appropriate. She’ll have an interesting task: the debate is unlikely to change minds hugely in Scotland, where most see Ed Miliband as an irrelevance to their voting decisions, and Sturgeon’s strong leadership as First Minister has already gained her all the acclaim she needs to take the SNP to a sweeping victory in May. Her task will be convince English voters not to see her as the ‘bogeyman’ of post-majoritarian politics in Britain. With much of the Tory press and campaign material depicting her and her party – though more often former leader Alex Salmond – as the spectre that haunts Britain, she needs to convince voters in England that she’s not all that bad. If she can, they may be less afraid to vote Labour with the tacit acknowledgement that her party will help them hold power. If she fails to perform, voters will stick with Cameron in the fear that anything else could bring a Scottish scourge to the heart of UK government. Expect the open, honest, voter-converting TV performance we saw from Clegg in 2010 – Sturgeon could be the de facto ‘winner’ of this debate.


Nigel Farage will provide the spice. He’ll be almost directly opposite Cameron, and so can pull incredulous faces at him at key moments, and he can turn to his left or right whenever Miliband and Clegg, respectively, say something profoundly ‘LibLabCon’-esque. With UKIP support in the polls draining steadily in recent weeks in favour of the Conservatives, expect Farage to go hard on Cameron and soft on Miliband. If Kippers see Cameron as the best of a bad bunch, they won’t risk going for UKIP if it lets Miliband in, but Farage is hugely helped by five years of a Miliband government: with no EU referendum in a Miliband term, his party’s raison d’être can keep burning strong, and the ‘official opposition’ role that UKIP is set to gain in many seats in the North and East can be converted to victories in 2020. Expect heavy-handedness with Cameron, but a softer touch with Miliband – as seen in last week’s Q&A reactions – but above all, expect more of the same flowery rhetoric we’ve always seen from Farage.


Ed Miliband has the hardest job tonight. It is in almost everyone else’s interest to manipulate him to their interests – by making him look incompetent or untrustworthy on the economy (Cameron & Clegg), by making him look ‘not altogether that bad’ (Farage), or by making him look not good enough for ‘people like us’ (Bennett, Wood, Sturgeon). Amidst such political plotting, Miliband has to be strong on the Labour message – so often lost in personal criticisms of his character and ability – and have the grace and ease of performance to look appropriately ‘prime ministerial’. Ultimately, unless he can pull something magical out of the hat, this won’t be Miliband’s night. He’ll be holding out for a chance to look like the voice of reason amongst the madness in the five-way opposition debate, and for the chance to look like the only leader untarnished by five grim years of cuts in the three-way Question Time special further down the line.


So, from left to right (in the graphic of course), what does each leader need to succeed?


Bennett needs: to matter, to be both passionate and confident, and crucially to know whether or not her numbers add up. She needs Sturgeon to be good, Wood to be too Welsh for her voters, Clegg to be government-tarnished, Miliband to be bad and Cameron to be worse (by being good). She can count on Farage being too terrible for her target market to even consider.


Clegg needs: an open, honest moment like the ones he did so well in 2010. He needs Miliband and Cameron to look almost-there-but-not-quite, and all of Bennett, Farage, Wood, and Sturgeon to look incompetent and naïve of the real challenges of government.


Farage needs: Miliband to shine, and Cameron to suffer under his bloke-down-the-pub real-talk microscope. He couldn’t care much less what Bennett, Wood, and Sturgeon get up to, as long as Clegg says some dodgy things about the European Union, but doesn’t distract him from the main goal of unseating the PM for good returns in 2020.


Miliband needs: to keep a cool head, and keep the debate about whose Prime Ministership will see Britain through the next five years in the best way for average voters. He needs Wood and Bennett to look irrelevant, and for Farage and Clegg to look like the kids bickering over Europe in the corner.


Wood needs: to matter. She is the biggest unknown amongst the leaders present, and her presence is perhaps the hardest to justify. As such, she needs to speak directly to her target market: voters in North and South Wales fed up of decades of Labour mismanagement, and voters in Mid and West Wales who feel betrayed by the Lib Dem leader who got into bed with the Tories.


Sturgeon needs: to be ‘the good guy. She needs to convince England that she’s not the devil, so they’ll get behind Miliband, who offers her the best chance of governmental power and not just 50 MPs shouting their way through five years of opposition. She needs Cameron to look like the devil, and Clegg alongside him. Though she flaunts their comradeship, she couldn’t care much less what Wood and Bennett are up to, and Farage is a flaming irrelevance as far as she’s concerned.


Cameron needs: to do very little, but not nothing. If he can keep his cool, ‘competent’, ‘prime-ministerial’ sheen throughout the debate, he only needs to sell himself in the closing remarks to take home a storm. He needs Miliband and his leftist nationalist friends to look suitably barmy, and for Clegg and Farage to look like two sides of the same coin that doesn’t quite cut it.


We need: clarity. We won’t get it, but we desperately need the leaders to spell out exactly what their plans are. We need Cameron to specify where the £12bn of welfare cuts, alongside other cuts, will come from (he won’t), and we need Miliband to specify where tax rises will fall, if indeed they fall at all (he won’t). We need Clegg to specify exactly what ‘not left but not right but kind of in the middle’ means, and we need the leaders of the other parties (UKIP aside) to specify exactly what their ‘red lines’ are. With more appearing every week, we need to know if they’ll derail any chance of a stable government if they can’t get their many ‘red lines’ through.


The debate between the seven party leaders is on at 8pm tonight on ITV. Follow @Election_Hub for live updates.

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