So last night we had the first election “debate” between David Cameron and Ed Miliband. Miliband won the toss and decided to go second, meaning Cameron faced Jeremy Paxman, then a town hall style debate compered by Kay Burley. Then Miliband faced the town hall, followed by his own interview with Paxo.
My instinctive reaction afterwards was that Ed Miliband had won. While Cameron hadn’t put a foot wrong, and provided a polished and smooth performance, it came across as a little too polished and smooth. Where was the passion? Where was the man who felt he was fighting an election he could win?
The contrast with Miliband was stark. He came out of the blocks swinging, and knocked down a number of highly personal questions – such as whether his brother should have been the leader. As much as many socialists on Twitter felt that his filial relations are irrelevant, they have become so ingrained with his public profile that the reaction to Ed on the doorstep has been an issue for Labour; Ed? Oh yes, he’s the one who stabbed his brother in the back. That isn’t a public profile that persuades people to vote for him.
ICM’s flash poll for the Guardian indicates that I was wrong, and that the senior Tory who text me suggesting that Miliband was showing why he was a Mili-stone around the Labour neck was actually right. I really don’t think it was a car crash for Miliband; I expect that the fact the broadcasters are choosing to focus on his answer to the toughness question will help to bear that out in the coming days and weeks.
It was ironic that Paxman chose to use the example of a man he met on the tube. Mr Miliband was much mocked for choosing to introduce a series of men he’d met in public parks to illustrate his conference speech. But when asked if he was tough enough to go toe to toe with President Putin, he claimed “hell yeah I’m tough enough.”
The clearly rehearsed line plays well for TV, despite the fact he managed to trip over his own tongue in delivering it. Whether it will continue to play well once the comedians start to mock him for it – and absolutely they will – only time will tell.
Cameron acknowledged that he couldn’t live on a zero-hours contract, but highlighted that the Government had banned the exclusivity element, though Labour claim this doesn’t go far enough. He acknowledged that food bank use had grown enormously, but stuck to his risible claim that this was because more people are aware of the existence of them; people do not want to use food banks and they would only use them because they had to.
Cameron also admitted that he’d missed his targets on immigration and eliminating the deficit. This is important and he will have to address both of those missed targets again in the coming weeks. He will also need a better answer on VAT than the one he gave – the last election he ruled out raising it, and then put it up. His argument – that by being the Government he now knows what the state of the public finances are so knows he doesn’t need to raise VAT – doesn’t address why he made a pledge that he broke in the first place.
Did we learn anything new from last night’s non-debate debate? Well I didn’t, but I suspect some of those who watched will have been more surprised by Miliband than the Tories would have hoped. Having seen him on his sole visit to Ipswich, I was less surprised. He connects with people on an individual basis and I recall saying back then that if Labour could put him on every doorstep they would win.
While ICM say that Cameron won 54/46, the more important figure is in the detail of the poll. It says that of those voters who identified themselves as floating, 56% said that they now will vote Labour, while 30% will now definitely vote Conservative.
Round 1 to Labour, but there is a long way to go in this election.