The Sun’s front page today has a picture of Ed Miliband saying: “Oops, I just lost my election”. That’s an exaggeration: I’d say the election is still 50/50, pretty much where it was last week. And realistically, that’s the best David Cameron could have hoped for. Miliband emerged best from the Paxman interviews, and had he triumphed last night he would have gathered momentum that could well have carried him over the line on 7 May. It was easier for Miliband to ‘win – all he had to do to exceed expectations was turn up without the help of a life support machine. Last time, there was a sizeable gap between the caricature of Ed Miliband and the man at his best. But in his debate, the gap wasn’t so big. Had he wowed us with his passion, or laid a blow on Cameron, he really would be sailing into this election campaign. It isn’t unthinkable: he was almost impressive, almost suave, on the Absolute Radio interview.
But last night, he was back to his old gauche self. The slightly peculiar facial expressions, the rather wonky and forgettable language. The soundbites that might have looked good on paper, but were rather lost in the delivery. Ask yourselves: what was his greatest line of the debate? There wasn’t one.
He wasn’t dreadful, he just wasn’t memorable. And to win, he had to be memorable. David Cameron played it safe (and, if you ask me, boring) – but you can see why. He was the only person on that panel with a record to defend, so could be hauled up for every little thing that went wrong in the last five years. Perhaps his best moment was closing down Ed Miliband’s NHS attacks by saying that he culled 20,000 bureaucrats and hired 9,000 more doctors. Attacking Welsh Labour for cutting the NHS. As a result, Miliband’s attack – vote Labour to save our NHS! – was unconvincing.
If Cameron scored well in the opinion polls, it wasn’t (especially) down to his performance. It was down to the arguments he made: calm, solid, coherent persuasive. And his achievements, which he listed effectively. He even summoned the courage to boast about a few free school, that would not have existed but for Tory radicalism. He set out to play the man of common sense – with clowns to the left of him, jokers to the right.
Nigel Farage decided to shock, saying the most outrageous thing that came into his head in any given situation (complaining about immigrants with Aids, for example). This made him stand out, but also made him look a bit desperate – like a man whose party is losing is momentum. But his outrageousness meant he, not Cameron, became the lightening conductor. The others took turns to beat up Farage, and for a while you almost forgot Cameron was in the room. For Cameron, this was a result.
I’d give the debate to to Nicola Sturgeon – whom The Times, in its leader today, salutes for her “powerful and persuasive presence” in the the debates. While her Westminster rivals are unable to make any advance, she’s mopping up almost ever seat in Scotland right now and you could see why last night: she’s articulate, competent, assured, didn’t waste a second allotted to her. Her aim was to appear like a statesman, to come across as being in the same league as Cameron. And, broadly, she succeed.
So with the debates over, the campaign begins. Sturgeon will be heading back to Scotland preparing to mount the head of Scottish Labour MPs on her wall. Clegg will retire to the two dozen seats he expected to hold. And Cameron and Miliband will spend the next four weeks touring the regions. This is now a campaign with plenty bacon sandwiches to be eaten, plenty of beggars to encounter in the street. David Cameron can do all of these things without creating a tragicomic photo opportunity; Miliband not so much. So from now on, David Cameron should have the advantage. It is now his election to lose.