As BBC cameras panned in to the second televised leaders' debate of the General Election campaign, two absences became immediately apparent. There was no Cameron and no Clegg. Before David Dimbleby was given the chance to open proceedings, it was clear that this would not be the debate Britain wanted or needed.
It was Miliband and the minors.
For Ed, it was a night that could go two ways. Either he would be ambushed by fellow opposition leaders who saw his establishemnt status as grounds for conflict, or he could use 90 minutes on primetime television as the ideal time to show his Prime Ministerial credentials.
Fortunately for Miliband, the night led mainly to the latter.
Leanne Wood was first to speak. She had used last Thursday’s debate as a chance to appeal solely to Welsh voters. Boosted in confidence by a steady showing in the seven-leader affair, Wood sought to emulate Nicola Sturgeon by winning over support from all of the room.
“Cuts are a choice” she told the audience – in an indirect message to Miliband; if you want to count on me, you’ll have to ease the austreity.
The other leader to show an obvious change in strategy was Natalie Bennett. Having been mistaken for Caroline Lucas over the past three years, she began the debate by paying tribute to the influencial MP. The most recent member for Brighton Pavillion is argubly the party’s greatest asset. By moving towards Lucas, instead of distancing herself from the former party leader, Bennett appeared to be on to a more popular strategy.
“Challenge the establishment, vote Green” was the only ‘sixth-form politics’ moment of an assured start for the Australian.
The first question of the night focused on the need to eliminate the defecit, without hurting the UK any more than ‘necessary’ in the process. It was an ideal chance for Miliband to mention his “budget responsibility lock” – a revolutionary promise to commit to no additional spending.
The Labour leader failed to mention it.
Nicola Sturgeon, slightly dented in confidence by recent close encounters with Jim Murphy north of the border, offered voters what many are desperate to hear – a slowly eliminated defecit without cutting public services. However, this response would not win any credit from those questioning the SNP leader on her fiscal prowess.
With a neater, and far less sweaty-physics-teacher look, Nigel Farage focused on taking down the leftwing alliance that had formed around him. Part of his plan to reduce the defecit was to take money away from Scotland by revising the Barnett formula, thereby drawing calculated glances from Nicola Sturgeon.
Two pacts appeared to form as the debate entered its mid stage.
In the middle was the Destiny’s Child of politics (for all the right reasons). Three empowered and likeminded women teaming up to achieve their vision of a better politics. Although, you got the sense that leader of the group, Nicola Sturgeon, would soon leave in order to realise her own potential. Even if that meant teaming up with an aesthetically unapleasing male.
If they were Destiny’s Child, then Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage were the Cheeky Boys. Twitter was alive with buzz surrounding their sassy antics.
Farage exlcaimed to Ed, “You obviously haven’t read our manifesto, perhaps you should!”
That drew a reply of “well I’ll tell you!”, followed by the slightly anti-climatic “come on Nigel.”
Cheeky Miliband was proving he was ‘tough enough’ to out-sass the man of David Cameron’s nightmares.
Nicola Strugeon herself produced a memorable line. “If Labour won’t be bold enough on its own, people should vote for parties that make them bolder”, before again volunteering to put Ed Miliband in Number 10.
At the halfway point, Farage – who had struggled to gain audience support from the outset – lost the entire live audience. The UKIP leader accued the BBC of selecting a leftwing audience to undermine him and his party, a claim which was immediately refuted by Dimbleby and rejected by the revelation that a third independent party sytematically arranged the audience for the debate.
Facing a chorus of booing and jeering, Farage stated “the real audience are at home” and refused to shake hands with those inside Central Hall after the debate. Regardless of the validity of his ‘bias’ claims, the damage had been done. The first audience member to be interviewed by the Beeb after the debate told John Pienaar that he would reconsider his UKIP vote after what he had witnessed.
The night got worse for Nige when he weaved immigration arguments into the topic of housing. To which Strugeon insisted that “if we can put the immigration argument to one side for a bit, we may be able to have a real debate for a change”
Miliband stated that his fundamental problem with Farage was: “You want to exploit people’s fears, not address them”.
Natalie Bennett chipped in with “I am an immigrant” – a statement which may force Nigel Farage to be even tougher on UKIP’s border policies.
The Destiny’s Child group struggled on the topic of Trident, however. Miliband tried to gloss over his parties’ continued support for the multibillion pound weapon system, but came unstuck when challenged by Wood. She asked him if he would “push the button” on an Islamic State attack, to which he replied “no”.
Bennett seemed lost in foreign policy, with more jargon than ideas when it comes to replacing the UK’s mutually assured destruction style of combat.
The final question, predictably about a hung parliament, gave way for Nicola Sturgeon to open coalition negotiations with Ed Miliband live on national television. Eventually, they settled some distance short of any official deal – but on agreement that Labour were favoured by the SNP over the Tories.
Farage claimed to be open to a Labour-UKIP coalition, should Miliband promise an in/out EU referendum. Although the MEP was serious, the statement drew huge laughter from all those on stage – including Dimbleby.
As the veteran wrapped up the discussion in his goldfish tie, before remarkably hot-footing it to Question Time, the winners and losers became more apparent.
Despite the Tory spinmasters’ attempts to discredit his performance, Miliband stuck out as statesmanlike. With three weeks to go before the election, he appeared to justify his personal best +60% approval ratings within his own party and a recent poll which found 43% of people would like him to be Prime Minister.
Sturgeon and Wood did their nationalist causes no harm once again, by taking the attack to Miliband and Farage when necessary and laying out a positive vision for the future when not. Bennett faired better than last time, with a far more confident display (besides an awful screach of ‘Ed Miliband!’ during the debate). The relief of the trio was palpable when the ‘team’ entereg into a group hug at the end of the show.
For Nigel Farage, he did not have the greatest of nights. However, as he leads on an anti-establishment, anti-media narrative – the display will not have affected him or his supporters in the way that it would another leader.
The biggest loser of the night was a certain David Cameron (remember him?). He was unable to defend his record when attacked by all leaders on stage. By removing himself and Nick Clegg from the debate, he set a leftwing agenda for the night – one that could have a knockon effect on electoral support.
Cameron being there allowed Ed Miliband to take on the role of Prime Minister for the night. It was one he seemed to suit, and a role the public may feel more willing to hand him on a full-time basis in twenty days.
As for Nick Clegg, the superstar of 2010’s TV debates was missing in action, and – spectactularly – no one seemed to care…