Leaders’ Debate: How it all played out

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Last night’s leaders’ debate hosted by ITV, 34 days before the UK General Election, made for interesting viewing. A definite step up from the comparatively lukewarm ‘Battle for Number 10’ last Thursday on Channel 4 and Sky which saw Miliband and Cameron face and then questions from a live audience, without ever facing each other. Last night viewers were treated to some real contact debate.  Seven Party Leaders went head to head before the British people. David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, as well as the leaders of UKIP, Green Party, and nationalist parties, SNP and Plaid Cymru (notable, however, was the absence of the First Minister of Northern Ireland and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Peter Robinson). Punches were given, taken and dodged, so who came out in best shape?

After each party leader offered an opening statement, first on the agenda was the economy, and that famous d-word, how to cut the deficit. Cameron received attacks from Miliband and Farage for having failed to keep his word from the last election on eliminating the deficit by 2015, and failing to act on tax-avoidance, and from the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon on the £12 billion cuts being made to British Welfare. Miliband also fell prey to Sturgeon, who pointed to the fact he has also signed the government’s ‘cuts’ charter. The first part of the debate also saw the first of a few somewhat raw outbursts from Clegg, one half of a clearly unhappy coalition marriage,  directed at Cameron, expressing his disdain for the planned Tory cuts for the next government, amounting to some £30 billion.

Up next was the NHS and the issue of increasing privatisation, which all leaders, at least officially, professed to be against. After different leaders proposed different means of funding, both Miliband and Clegg suggested taxing the richest, viewers were treated to one of the most controversial exchanges of the evening. The initial came from Farage (no surprises there then), on the subject of ‘health tourism’. After noting that 60% of the 7,000 diagnoses of HIV in Britain are not British nationals, and suggesting that many of these people come to Britain with the specific motive of gaining free treatment, he sparked a backlash from both Leanne Wood, leader of Plain Cymru, who told Farage he ought to be ‘ashamed’ of himself, as well as Sturgeon who suggested anyone sick regardless of nationality ought to be treated as a ‘human being’. Indeed, it can be noted that attacks on Farage, particularly from the smaller party leaders, somewhat diverted the even bigger tirade of criticism Cameron might otherwise have faced.

Next, linking nicely to that previous exchange, was immigration, which inevitably also came with a lot of discussion about Britain’s membership in the EU.  All three main parties offered fairly tough solutions, Miliband promised immigrants would not be allowed access to benefits for at least two years upon entry to the UK, whilst Cameron promised four. Farage stuck resolutely to his argument that immigration to Britain could not be controlled whilst we remain a member of the EU, which, interestingly enough, Leanne Wood agreed with. This time it was Natalie of the Greens to level a punch at Cameron, asking why it was that the UK government had only taken in 143 Syrian refugees, which she said was not its ‘fair share’.

Finally, something we can all relate to, the question asked was ‘What will you do for young people?’  Tuition fees was a hot topic, with Clegg, unsurprisingly taking some stick for his infamously failed promises on that. Miliband proposed reduced fees of £6,000 per year, whilst both Sturgeon and Bennett, argued that to deny young people free education at all was ‘shameful’. Farage introduced a different dimension to the debate by suggesting it was the abolition of the state grammar school system which had ‘pulled up the ladder’ on opportunities for the less well off. This question also saw another heated exchange between the coalition partners, exposing further cracks in a strained marriage, as Clegg asked why Cameron and the conservatives are going to cut funding to schools. The angry response from Cameron was that Clegg’s ‘pick and mix’ approach to coalition will convince ‘no one’.

So who won? The polls are not unanimous. YouGov placed Sturgeon as winner with 28%, followed by Farage on 20%, with an analysis of Twitter reactions throughout the debate confirming Sturgeon’s victory.  Indeed, Sturgeon pulled off an impressive performance, putting across her points articulately, dodging blows from the Westminster boys, and even managing to appear genuine and compassionate to an audience that was primarily not Scottish, which was not an easy task. It’s fair to say that polls like this make worrying reading for Labour, who’d rather not contemplate coalition with the SNP.

Other polls placed Cameron and Miliband on top, with Farage just a whisker away. ComRes, ITV’s poll placed, Cameron, Miliband and Farage as joint winners on 21%, whilst another poll saw Cameron and Miliband as the winners with 25%.  In all, there were more than 1.5 million Tweets about the debate, with an average of 8,657 tweets per minute, the ‘Marmite man’ Farage, taking the greatest portion of these, some 262,000.

Overall, the debate only strengthens predictions that another coalition is on the cards. With no outright winner, the leader’s debate is certainly not going to prove to be a major turning point in the run up to the election. However it did make for entertaining viewing, and did give me a few more ideas as to who I’ll be voting for come May 7th.

Photo: ITV

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