David Dimbleby, returning for his second outing as a moderator during this election campaign, began the night as he meant it to go on. After claims by Nigel Farage that the challenger debate audience was disproportionately left wing, the veteran broadcaster issued a warning to the three hopefuls; 75% of this audience is against you.
After a campaign trail of carefully planned visits and solicited questioning, a fiery Leeds audience put Cameron, Clegg and Miliband under the microscope in a hostile yet revealing manner.
The Prime Minister was the first man to take to the Leeds Town Hall floor. His job was to convince voters that he had the right to remain in office for another five years. The first question was to seek clarity on cuts to the welfare bill, after Danny Alexander’s revelation that Child Tax Credit was in danger of being slashed as part of Tory spending plans.
It seemed clear that many of his answers, like Miliband’s, had been rehearsed. On topics like food banks, homelessness and unemployment, Cameron stuck to the Tory mantra of ‘hardworking people’ being helped by a ‘long term economic plan’.
This style was tackled early on. One audience member told the Prime Minister of 5 years to focus on the moral side of the questions, not just the numbers.
Message somewhat received, Cameron brought out his secret weapon; Liam Byrne’s infamous ‘no money’ note to the incoming Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Admittedly, the secret element had been slightly ruined by the fact that the Tory leader had pulled the exact same stunt on a village walkabout just a few hours earlier.
The most human aspect of his question and answer section was when asked about the NHS. Speaking about the ‘love’ shown to him by hospital workers as his son Ivan was treated for cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
But, if he thought he was capable of stealing the support that Labour has on the issue of healthcare, he was soon delivered as reality check.
A member of the Yorkshire audience told the PM he was being ‘stupid’ if he believed that he could afford his promises of delivering the NHS ‘more money every year and seven-day openings for GP surgeries’.
Cameron told the man that he disagreed, to which he replied: “well, you’re wrong”.
It was the only real scare for the Conservative leader, who went on to rule out any compromise on the Tory pledge of an EU referendum before 2017.
He left the audience with the vision of entering ‘dark rooms with Nick Clegg’ (apparently that is how you form a coalition).
After jogging on to stage, Ed Miliband’s first question regarded ‘the note’. The joke had gone sailing over the head of a local business owner, who probed the Labour leader on the party’s economic record in office.
Miliband reassured the audience “that’s Cameron’s regular prop” to a collective giggle, before launching into ‘Labour loves business’ mode.
He promised to get tough on the rich, adding “I can’t justify a £43,000 tax cut for millionaires in Britain”.
The Leeds audience continued to press Miliband on the economy, forcing Gordon Brown’s former advisor to admit that the party had got it wrong the last time they were in office.
“The banks weren’t properly regulated, we’ve learnt that lesson. But this financial crisis isn’t because of the deficit. Obama isn’t dealing with a financial crisis because we built more schools and hospitals.”
The most revealing part of the night was when Miliband took on Theresa May’s concerns that a Labour-SNP would be ‘the worst crisis since the abdication’.
“We’re not going to have a deal with the SNP. There will be no coalition or another deal. That includes a supply and confidence agreement.” The Guardian has since splashed on this guarantee on today’s front page.
By far Miliband’s best moment was when he joked about Cameron’s earlier comments on the formations of coalitions, telling the audience “I don’t like the idea of going into dark rooms with Nick Clegg for a number of reasons”.
On immigration, the subject to trigger predecessor Gordon Brown’s ‘bigot’ moment in 2010, he faced his toughest test.
An audience member who had been equally argumentative with David Cameron asked Miliband to put a number on the amount of non-EU immigrants per year under a Labour government.
He told the Leeds crowd, to muted scepticism, that he “would be the first Prime Minister to under-promise and over-deliver” adding ‘I’m not the guy who’s going to make easy promises’.
Miliband had faced 28 minutes of intense scrutiny without any notable slip-ups, until he literally tripped off the stage as he exited the hall.
As Nick Clegg emerged from his ‘dark room’ and Britain took a collective tea break, there were no prizes for guessing what his first question would be.
After pointing out that he had apologised for his tuition fee U-turn in ‘musical form’, he tried to justify his reasons for entering a coalition in the first place.
“We could have been Greece. Our banking crisis was worse… we stepped in and created a stable government.”
This prompted one audience member to plead “stop insulting our intelligence by comparing us to Greece. Our economies are not at all similar.”
Besides confirming that he would start coalition talks with the largest party after the General Election – without setting out whether that would be by seats or by votes, were they to differ – and that he would not support an EU referendum unless there was a transfer of powers from Britain to Brussels, he added little of value.
His lack of influence on the discussion was reflected by ICM’s snap poll for the Guardian. The survey found that just 18% of the public thought he had performed best on the night.
Miliband came in at a close second with 38% of the vote, narrowly beaten by Cameron’s poll results of 44%.
Just like their previous two encounters, the discussion format had failed to separate the two potential Prime Ministers. While David Cameron gave the more assured performance, his showing was unlikely to have swayed many undecided voters.
At the same time, Miliband continued showed he was a lot tougher than billed over the past five years, but failed to convince on the economy.
The parties maintain that next Thursday’s polls are the ones that matter, and right now it is anyone’s prize for the taking.