Last night’s seven-way leaders’ debate brought in a third of TV viewers, and was the only time ahead of the general election that David Cameron and Ed Miliband will be in a studio together. Polls are mixed but the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon seems to have pulled out in front with her anti-austerity stance and offer of ‘friendship’ to the rest of the UK. Here are 11 quick reflections on the debate and what it tells us.
1. Cameron is screwed.
He needed a game changer. He didn’t have one. The Tories need to win by a big margin for their potential alliance with the collapsing Liberal Democrats to beat the combined force of Labour and the SNP. No polls for 4 years have shown this (not even the one on the front page of the Sun today).
Unless a) the polls are wrong b) the papers can bully Miliband out a deal with the SNP or c) there’s a big swing in the next four weeks, Ed Miliband will be the prime minister. This was one of David Cameron’s few chances to change that. He didn’t.
2. Ukip are closing on the Tories.
Nigel Farage may have been vomit-worthy, but he mobilised his base and helped stop their seep to the Tories. If you believe some polls, he won more of them over. This is a huge problem for Cameron.
3. Miliband came off better than Cameron.
Cameron perhaps thought he could use his office to rise above everyone else. But in a sense, it was Miliband who looked the calmest and the most ‘prime ministerial’.
He’s still a bit awkward, but the expectations of him have been set so low by the Tories and their media over the last five years that it was impossible for him not to beat them. He did.
4. The debate had a broader spectrum than most are used to.
The inclusion of Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett pulled the whole thing to the left, which arguably helped Miliband by putting him in the centre and Cameron on the right. It was also very good for the Greens in England – Natalie Bennett will undoubtedly have benefited from being one of three ‘anti-austerity women’.
5. Sturgeon won – but where will her English converts go?
Sturgeon was clearly the most impressive if you’re even vaguely on the left. But the SNP are only standing in Scotland – so who will collect the votes of the English people who would vote for her? It’s a toss-up between Labour or Green.
6. She also succeeded in reaching out to English voters.
Sturgeon’s main aim was to dispel the SNP fear-mongering which has been widespread in the rest of the UK. For the main part, she did. This helps Miliband too, because it takes the sting out the the Tory attack line that Labour will be propped up by SNP MPs.
7. This was a good night for Plaid Cymru and the Greens.
Being there and holding their own was a huge boost for Wood and Bennett in itself. Five years ago, having a third party in the debates was a surprise. Having the sixth and seventh this time around is an even bigger deal. The fact that neither leader was an embarrassment is a victory for both.
8. Bennett led with stats.
In fact, Bennett’s answers were more full of facts, figures and stats than anyone else’s. This perhaps reflects how the left always has to prove itself against the rhetoric or the right.
9. The snap polls were all over the place.
They always are after debates. What matters is the impression people remember today, next week and on polling day. That is likely to be very different from their initial impression.
10. The Tory PR machine is about to go into overdrive.
Watch the Tory press spin. Remember that this may be them drilling their own long-term graves.
11. The improving gender balance was refreshing.
The stage as a whole was pretty gender balanced. That’s extremely rare, and very positive.