David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg faced a grilling from the public in a special election edition of BBC Question Time. They were quizzed on immigration, the NHS and the economy. Our political experts have rated each party leader’s performance.
Mark Garnett, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Lancaster University
Great delivery, shame about the script. In his Question Time performance, David Cameron showed the kind of fluency and ability to engage with an audience that seems to elude him in televised confrontations with other leaders. Voters have all heard about his experiences with the NHS, but his sincerity is apparent every time he pays tribute to the care his disabled son Ivan received before his death. If any of the questions affected his composure, it never showed.
This is not to say, however, that Cameron responded to all the questions thrown at him with a satisfactory answer. It’s still not clear how the Tories would shave £12bn from a welfare budget which has been under attack for five years, for example.
He also failed to clarify the ingenious methods he will deploy to prise an extra £5bn out of tax avoiders and evaders. The loudest applause from the audience during the PM’s appearance came when a questioner asked why he had refused to debate head-to-head with Miliband. On its own, this issue would not have hurt Cameron much, but it’s obviously damaging in combination with his slippery approach to more substantive questions.
The overall impression, then, was that Cameron has lost none of his gusto as a political performer: indeed, the main party leaders seem far less jaded than the voters. But beneath the polish the flaws were too apparent to make this the moment when the Conservatives finally freed themselves from the deadlock of the polls.
Wyn Grant, Professor of politics at the University of Warwick
Ed Miliband went further than he has gone before in ruling out any kind of deal with the SNP. A coalition was never on the agenda, but he also specifically ruled out a confidence-and-supply arrangement. Indeed, he went so far as to say that he would rather not be in government than depend on the SNP.
This suggests that he realises that Conservative are cutting through to voters with warning about the risks of such an arrangement. However, it also suggests that he feels confident enough to call the SNP’s bluff, realising that they would not vote down measures on which they agree with Labour. Even so, it is a high risk strategy.
The Labour leader came in for tough questioning on the issue of Labour’s spending plans. A number of members of the audience pressed him hard on his denials that the last Labour government had overspent, suggesting that this undermined claims that a Miliband government would be fiscally responsible.
Looking nervous at the beginning, Miliband stepped down from the podium towards the audience and tried to address questioners by name. He was able to repeat some by now familiar messages and added another – that child benefit and tax credits were now on the ballot paper. But he received a grilling on immigration and his opposition to holding an EU referendum. His claim was that he would under promise and over deliver. It was his toughest television appearance so far, and in some ways the least impressive, but it does not fundamentally undermine a campaign that has enhanced his credibility as a leader.
Matt Cole, Teaching Fellow at the University of Birmingham
Nick Clegg had three jobs to do in his Question Time appearance. He needed to boost Liberal Democrat performance, especially in the party’s existing seats; set out his post-election strategy to the country and potential coalition partners; and save his own seat, currently under threat according to recent polls. And, to be fair, two out of three ain’t bad.
Progress was made on the last aim: Clegg was a winning personality, less stilted than the other leaders, and only a little shaken by questions about his political future and Treasury minister Danny Alexander’s decision to reveal unpublished coalition plans earlier in the day in a bid to discredit the Conservatives.
Few parliamentary candidates have the luxury of 30 minutes’ TV exposure a week before polling, and Clegg may be grateful he made effective use of it.
On the second matter – of coalition – Clegg made only partial use of a big opportunity. The striking feature of the sessions with the other leaders was their almost pathological denial of the likelihood of having to form a coalition after May 7, at which the audience expressed repeated frustration.
With the field open to present himself as the new realist of multi-party politics, Clegg made his pitch for negotiation and set out the red-line issues that would be non-negotiable if another party were to approach the Lib Dems to form a coalition. The language of absolute promises – vows, pledges and contracts – should have been abandoned by now. Nobody can guarantee delivery in a multi-party system, and now the public knows it. Sacrifices are a transparent part of the process requiring explanation, not apology. Politicians should offer priorities, not promises.
On the first, most immediate issue the Guardian/ICM poll showed Clegg was the best performer for 19% of viewers. It’s not Cleggmania, but these days, the Liberal Democrats almost never see a national poll of any kind put them in double figures, and this will give some real heart to some of the party’s candidates.
Overall, Liberal Democrat policies and achievements got a better airing than they have had for some time. Clegg has his critics within his party, but his resilient performance reflects the fact that the party itself has survived far worse times and is not “irrelevant” – as one member of the audience suggested.
Mark Garnett, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Lancaster University; Matthew Cole, Teaching Fellow, Department of History at University of Birmingham, and Wyn Grant, Professor of politics at University of Warwick