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Five thoughts on the Cameron-Miliband ‘debate’

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1. Mission Accomplished (I): Cameron survives (mostly) intact

A Prime Minister, having to defend a record, is naturally on the back foot in such events. The Cameron objective was clearly just to ‘get through’ the event, and although he looked uncomfortable and flapped through in the early stages of his interview with Jeremy Paxman, he survived the Great Interrogator’s Bodyline attack.

The questioning from the studio audience was a period of gentle underarm bowling by comparison, and Cameron’s lengthy answers allowed him to eat up time. The section was so dull that you would have thought the programme had been sponsored by a barbiturates producer.

2. Mission Accomplished (II): Miliband quashes some myths

If you were to believe some of the British media coverage of Ed Miliband, you would have thought that he was likely to trip up on stage, pour water over himself, and make some horrendous verbal slip-up.

Instead, he was personable with the audience, frank and honest (in particular, when talking about standing against his brother, David, for the Labour leadership) and assertive.

He had uncomfortable moments with Paxman, too – especially on immigration – but will earn credit for giving as good as he got.

3. An event of two halves

The entire Conservative strategy appears to be to talk about competent management, a ‘long-term economic plan’, and generally bore the electorate into submission.

So it was no surprise that after the snore-fest of the Cameron Q&A with the audience, Kay Burley ramped things up for Miliband.

It perhaps seemed a little unfair after giving the PM latitude to provide rambling answers, but Burley’s follow-up questions and general snippiness helped Miliband to get his message across quickly and clearly – if any casual viewer was still awake by then.

4. An unsatisfactory format, and unsatisfactory hosts

The format of the event was unsatisfactory: having the two men in the same studio on the same evening, without a debate, was absurd (although tactically, Cameron and his team called it right – he had little to gain from a head-to-head).

The interview and Q&A format made the event very ‘bitty’, and it never really got into its stride.

Paxman started strongly with Cameron and Miliband, but became too antagonistic and hectoring. I have long thought that, as with his BBC contemporary Alan Hansen, Paxman’s reputation endured despite his performances dipping. His ‘Are you OK, Ed?’ comment at the end smacked of a lack of professionalism.

So did Burley’s gushing series of thank yous to Cameron at the end of his Q&A, and the marked difference in questioning to the two men: Cameron being asked about breakfast cereal while Miliband was asked about his mother’s feelings towards him and his brother.

Now, on ITV and the BBC, we will have proper debates, with proper rules and better moderators. That can only help.

5. Miliband won – but I would say that…

I’ve never been Ed Miliband’s biggest fan – but as a Labour supporter, you would expect me to say that he ‘won’. He was clearer, more assertive, more passionate and had a better vision of what a leader should do (lead). Cameron’s survival strategy worked for him, but it was all a little flat.

Snap opinion polls suggested that Cameron won among the public, but that Miliband won over more undecided voters. I suspect that with more TV exposure, Miliband will narrow the gaping leadership gap with Cameron.

But in the end, we are still a long way from the election, and much of last night will be forgotten.

Except, perhaps, ‘Hell yes’. That could live on.