The Indiependent, March 27th 2015
Like gun-slingers gearing up for a race to their triggers, the leaders’ speeches have focussed on the Channel 4 Battle for Number 10 for weeks. Despite Cameron’s sly attempts to wangle his way out of the showdown, he and Miliband finally met in front of the public.
The format – somewhat convoluted, you might say – involved a Paxman interview with Cameron, then some audience questions, then some audience questions with Miliband, then a Paxman interview. Not quite the clash of the juggernauts we’d all been hoping for. Nevertheless, it began in earnest with Cameron’s grilling.
Paxman began with one of the most common criticisms levelled at the coalition: poverty and food banks. Cameron didn’t know how many more food banks there are (355), and admitted eventually to Paxman that he himself couldn’t live on a zero-hours contract. The interview from there somewhat predictably focussed on immigration, austerity and the EU. For anyone who’s been in a coma for the last six months: the Tories are the only party who will offer an in/out referendum on the EU in 2017. Immigration is higher than Cameron said it would be. Austerity will continue. Like a dog with a large, sweaty bone, Paxman gnawed on Cameron for the remaining few minutes, asking him typically fatuous questions: “what are your worst foreign policy disasters?”. Cameron responded with typically nebulous answers: “well, we’ve done a lot of good things.” The audience joined in like a musical sing-along for the interview’s climax, which featured such classics as “long term”, “economic” and “plan”.
The audience participation section was new to some of us, but is best described as a blend of PMQs and Question Time. Kay Burley, the host, was new to most of us, but is best described as ‘charmless’. It went well for Cameron, who laughed off a question about “Ed Miliband’s best features”, before answering with the somewhat less-amusing “tackling of ISIL, the murderous death cult”.
From there, the questions became more demographic-specific (as is often the case with Question Time), and Cameron gave competent but long-winded answers about old people and the disabled that left Kay gushing “Okay, Prime Minister, we did say we would keep the questions short”. Wrist slapped, Cameron moved on. The shock appearance of a retired police officer named Zayn Malik brought took the debate in a new direction (chortle), and Cameron dodged the statistics on cuts in the police force and NHS.
The highlight of the exchange was Cameron being pressed for specific examples of public expenditure he would cut to finance a reduction in the deficit. He couldn’t give any, even when pushed by Burley. Overall, his presence was assured but waffley, and ultimately unconvincing. He overwhelmingly enforced Labour’s trope: vote Conservative, and it’s more of the same.
Ed Miliband was up next (after a short ad break, curtsey of everyone’s favourite broadcaster), and he took to the stage with astonishing ease. One hand in pocket, he sauntered around – perhaps too much – fielding questions from audience members of whom he made sure to ask the name. He set up the key points of the manifesto (tuition fees lowering, deficit reduction), and took some questions which struck to the heart of tabloid criticism. “Do you think your brother would have done a better job?” one admittedly simple-looking onlooker asked. “You’ll be surprised to hear this – no” Miliband joked in response. When Burley followed it up with the somewhat incisive “your poor mum”, Ed replied that “she’s pretty resilient”. Like mother, like son (or at least one of them).
Channel 4 sure know how to pick ‘em – the next questioner asks Ed if he’s “just going to lie like David Cameron and Nick Clegg”. Kudos to Ed for not using his throat mike as a garrotte – he instead replies with the refreshing “that’s for you to decide tonight”.
Ed’s interview with the people continues, with questions that could be considered easier than Cameron’s. On Europe, he says that a referendum is “simply not a priority” for Labour, and that he would consider it only if there was a significant “transfer of powers” to Brussels. Burley accuses him of a “politicians’ answer”, to which Ed shrugs and replies that he’s being honest. We believe him.
Up next, Wallace meets the BBC’s bulldog, who we presume has been backstage on a leash in the interim period. He sinks his teeth into Ed’s well-tailored weakness – immigration. A ping-pong exchange begins, as Paxman tries to draw Ed into setting a maximum population size “this country could take”, and forces an admission that New Labour were wrong on immigration and that it did increase very sharply. Note: immigration was tough for both leaders – a cynic would see this as ‘the UKIP effect’.
Miliband was caught out on his use of incorrect statistics when talking about wages and unemployment, and once again the picture is muddied as Ed tries to pre-empt Paxman’s questions and starts arguing with himself. “You’re asking yourself questions now” Paxman twice taunts.
Nevertheless, Miliband’s questions turn once more to his personal life. And he changes up a gear. Sitting back in his chair, Ed blows out his cheeks and holds up his palms – “I don’t care what people say about me. I care about the British people and I think I’m the right man to lead the country.” Paxman presses him on whether he’s tough enough: “Hell yes I am. People have underestimated me at every step. I’m a pretty resilient guy.”
Short of cooking him a bacon sandwich there and then, there doesn’t seem to be much that Paxman can do to turn it around. He makes some comments about the SNP, which Miliband blows off as “presumptuous “. He admits to not understanding some of Labour’s policies, but the look on Ed’s face suggests that’s a fault of his own.
Paxman parried, dodged and thrust his final, sardonic words: “Ed, are you alright after that?”
“Yeah,” replies Ed, “are you?”