“Are you alright, Ed?” – the rather revealing final question from Jeremy Paxman which viewers across the country heard last night, just before the microphone feed was cut.
Why is it worth talking about the end of the programme rather than the start? Well, the former was quite simply far better television. With no new policy announcements, the record of populist soundbites was first being spun by both party leaders – a record which will so very soon feel broken.
Instead, the audience reaction to the event tells a much more compelling story.
There were audible groans during the parts of Paxman’s rather bruising and overly-personal final segment with Ed Miliband. Whether this was an expression of distaste at the questioning or discomfort at the awkwardness that ensued from it is hard to tell. It was probably both.
Cameron’s first half, on the other hand, was largely uneventful. There was little spontaneity from the audience to his rhetoric, neither approving nor disparaging.
For a Conservative election machine which has been actively trivialising the potential pantomime of the TV leadership events in the run up the 7 May, it’s fair to assume this was the desired effect. It was a no-thrills soapbox opportunity for Cameron to convey his election themes, sparring with Paxman fairly well and bartering a decidedly breezy session with the audience.
This is a risky strategy. Remember how Cameron’s dispassionate performance against Nick Clegg in the first 2010 leaders debate is now cited as costing the Conservatives an overall majority?
The Conservatives, however, are no longer Her Majesty’s Opposition. It is now Labour who must muster sufficient momentum to alter any status quo at a General Election, and Miliband’s performance certainly was, in one form or another, a momentum builder.
This might explain the snap-opinion polls calling a close to neck-and-neck result.
ICM had Cameron on 54% and Miliband on 46%, and just minutes later, YouGov published a 51% – 49% split on who had won the night. The reason why we should consider this a subtle win for the Labour leader is because these numbers shrink the massive gulf on current trends in party leader popularity. Put into context, Cameron held a mammoth 34% lead over Miliband in the latest approval ratings from YouGov poll from a week ago.
How much this indicator shifts will be worth analysis in the weeks ahead. But there is one key conclusion to draw at this stage.
The Tory idea that plonking Ed Miliband in front of a camera would act as their best electoral asset was well and truly put to bed. Whether for reasons of policy-preference, or more likely so far from polling day, owing to an emotive reaction, Miliband was able to garner far greater sympathy for his position than many would have dared expect.
One final point. Labour hopefuls mustn’t get too excited here. Being seen as sympathetic is very far removed from being seen as a Prime Minister. Don’t let the drama of the political campaign ever let you suspect otherwise, even if this has been an as yet much understated aspect in current commentary.
Miliband, the marmite leader? Last night, his “I am who I am” candour contrasting against Paxman’s bludgeoning appealed to such an extent that just as many who may hate him, may well love him too. Whether or not this is for the right reasons, only time will tell.