As I embarked on the lengthy journey home after the first leaders’ non-debate, I found myself wondering what preparation David Cameron had done for his interview with Jeremy Paxman. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, got a duffing up from one of his senior advisers and it showed; he was ready to fight Paxman’s fire with fire. But Cameron seemed genuinely shocked at the ferocity of Paxman’s questions.
There was no gentle introduction, no warm-up; the former Newsnight host went straight for the Prime Minister’s jugular, as everyone surely knew he would, especially when he only had a miserly 18 minutes to skewer his meat. Cameron couldn’t answer questions on the numbers of food banks, floundered on zero hour contracts and struggled on government borrowing. Even being a friend of Jeremy Clarkson and Andy Coulson came under attack. Cameron’s eyes and tight lips betrayed his nervousness. Whatever preparation had been done, clearly wasn’t enough.
The Tory leader did rescue it a bit as the interview went on; relaxing a little – though never hugely – and he managed to get his lines across on the size of the deficit inherited from the last Labour government, boasted about the coalition’s economic achievements and outlined a few cuts planned for the next parliament, such as unemployment benefit being frozen for two years.
He also still insisted that, if he were still prime minister after the general election, he would serve every day of a second term before standing down. Everyone knows this is impossible; it’s a ridiculous pretence to maintain.
It was striking how Cameron looked when the programme restarted after the adverts (why weren’t these scrapped?) when he was faced with questions from the audience. An enormous weight seemed to have been lifted off his back; the prime minister’s face filled with blood once more, he smiled, he charmed. The TV ad man was back.
Ed Miliband had an advantage going second ( I understand the order was decided by the toss of a coin rather than a cunning bit of political chicanery) as it gave him the opportunity to mentally prepare for Paxman and maybe he was cheered to see his opponent squirm. But Miliband faced much sterner questions from the audience than Cameron had faced: ‘Why are you so grumpy?’; ‘Wouldn’t your brother be better?’. Nevertheless, Miliband just about survived and even got the first applause of the evening: noticeably Cameron didn’t get any applause though this could well be that those who had gathered relaxed more as the programme went on.
Kay Burley was the circus master for this section but whereas she asked whether the Prime Minister ever had three Shredded Wheat, she whimpered ‘your poor mum’ to Miliband after a question about his brother.
The surprise was when Miliband was confronted by Paxman; he was strikingly more combative than the prime minister, answered back and even mocked the great interrogator: ‘You’re important Jeremy, but not that important’. There was an odd section where Miliband tried to be macho: ‘Am I tough enough? Hell yes’, sounding less like the mean Dirty Harry and more as threatening as Monty Python’s Black Knight after his limbs had been sliced off.
The Labour leader struggled a bit when Paxman, who clearly relished a return to action after a long lay-off,asked him to provide a maximum population size for the country; an absurd line of questioning which both must have known but it will allow some to claim Miliband wants no limit on immigration.
Personally, I found the questions about the relationship with his brother just a bit too personal; ‘it was a bruising contest’, the younger Miliband said, betraying the pain that still clearly exists in the family. And, much like Cameron, how a future Labour government plans to cut the deficit remains something of a mystery. Removing TV licences from rich pensioners just doesn’t cut the mustard.
The snap poll giving Cameron a win genuinely surprised the press in the spin room; everyone there had witnessed the PM being mauled and seen Miliband get the only applause of the evening and the biggest laughs (both at him and with him). Even Nigel Farage, stalking into the spin room early in the evening, said the Labour leader ‘walked it’, with Cameron ‘nervous and defensive’.
The poll verdicts will help Tory spinners paint a positive gloss on the evening’s affair. In truth, expectations were so low for Miliband, the instant polls show a big rise in his personal ratings in comparison with normal opinion polls even if he were left slightly behind. Labour spinners were cheery and bullish; the message ‘this is the reason why David Cameron didn’t want to be in the same room debating with Ed Miliband’ was repeated ad nauseam.
Will it have changed any votes? Probably an insignificant few but Labour will be the most cheered; their man gave a good show and put a spring in the step of foot soldiers as they officially launch their election campaign today.