So who won? That’s the question, isn’t it? Well, not really. This debate, like most such affairs, is not a horserace in which the winner is easily determined. Because not everyone was racing to be across the line “first”. That’s not actually the nature of the game.
The question is not who was crowned the “winner” by the post-debate polls (which are, in any case, largely meaningless and utterly useless in terms of measuring any impact on the wider campaign). No, the only question that really matters is this: who achieved what they wanted to achieve last night?
And the tiresome, boring, correct answer to that is all of them. Let’s run through the list:
David Cameron: A good night for the Prime Minister. He could have found himself in a 6 vs 1 brawl as everyone else piled in to attack his record. That didn’t quite happen. Cameron’s decision to hide himself in a seven-way debate paid off. He was, at times, able to rise above the fray and present himself as a capable grown-up in a room full of squabbling children. Not a perfect performance by any means but he escaped largely unscathed. Job Done.
Ed Miliband: One thing was made clear last night, Ed Miliband is not the man to save Labour in Scotland. But we kinda knew that already. Did he come across as a potential Prime Minister? Only up to a point. Nevertheless, he did not fall below expectations and that counts as a win too. Job Kinda Done.
Nick Clegg: Sure, people hate him and, sure, the highlight of the evening was Clegg accusing someone else (Miliband) of being “pious”. Nevertheless, Clegg’s Goldilocks debating approach – not too much of this and not too much of that, either – proved more effective than it probably should. He made a plea for the Lib Dems’ relevance as a means of curbing the excesses of Labour and the Tories alike. Hardly a profile in conviction but still the best he could hope for. He walked the fine line between defending his government’s record and attacking his coalition partners and he did it rather well. This is so even if you think him an irritating, sanctimonious, twerp. Job Done.
Nicola Sturgeon: An obvious “winner” in the traditional first-past-the-post sense of determining these things but, also, clearly a “winner” in terms of achieving her goals. She presented herself as the guardian of traditional Labour values. She would stand up for Scotland but English voters need not be afraid of her party. Why, she implied, wouldn’t you like it if your Labour party sounded more like me? She stuck as many knives into Miliband as she did into Cameron. Her anti-austerity schtick is not credible (the SNP demand for spending increases is a means of differentiating herself from Labour more than it is a sensible programme for government), but it is easy to “win” these debates when you can promise the earth free from the tedious requirement of delivering it. Still, a triumph. She’s good at these things. Better than Alex Salmond. Job More Than Done.
Nigel Farage: Farage gonna be Farage and the more you hate that the better it is for him. All the people who were never going to vote for Farage had their (sensible) prejudices confirmed. But so what? He wasn’t talking to them. He was talking to his own people and if you like Nigel Farage then that’s the sort of thing you like. Where others saw a rancid buffoon, they will have seen a common-sense patriot. If you liked UKIP yesterday there’s no reason not to like them today. Job Done.
Leanne Wood: Hello Britain, I’m from the valleys! Isn’t it lovely to be here? I can’t recall the last time Plaid enjoyed such prominence on the national – ie, UK – stage. Her presence in the debate was a victory in itself. But she did well, too, coming across as personable and as, if not the sharpest, then, perhaps, the nicest person in the room. Her message was not bad either: vote Plaid and give us a chance to be like the SNP. Job Done.
Natalie Bennet: She exceeded expectations. Bless. Job Done.
The other winner? The format itself which proved surprisingly entertaining and even, on the odd occasion, illuminating.