Thursday sees the 7-sided ‘debate’ between party leaders. What’s at stake for each of them?
Reading from stage left to right….
After recent shaky media appearances, the expectations start low – so the chances of appearing ‘better’ are enhanced. Poll ratings indicate significantly stronger support than in 2010. But another weak performance would probably be fatal and set the vote sliding. Ms Bennett’s main task will be to counter the line that a Green vote is a wasted vote. That means stressing unique Green policies. However, the risk in doing so is that she reinforces suspicions that the party isn’t realistic.
This is going to be the exact of opposite of 2010. No more ‘I agree with Nick’ lines. Mr Clegg is on the defensive, facing a steep drop in votes and the prospect of a large loss of seats. So expect him to find ways of going offensive. The problem with pitching himself as a break on the extreme of the others also means pitching as a coalition partner. And it’s his record there that has done the damage.
Mr Farage needs oxygen, and Thursday offers the prospect of a tank full. UKIP support has sagged in recent weeks as the media focus has gravitated to the battle of the prospective prime ministers. Expect him to use this opportunity to the full. Expect him to go into his straight-talking ‘I’ll tell you how if really is folks’ populist rhetoric. But UKIP has suffered recently from becoming near-establishment, with its candidate and policy problems. And Farage’s best prospects lie with the disillusioned who probably won’t be watching, but will read the headlines on Friday morning, and that is where he will be aiming to appear.
Can centre-stage equate to centre of attention? After a strong performance in last weeks’ studio confrontation with Paxman, expectations will be raised, making the challenge that bit harder, especially as the format will not allow any extended opportunities. However, the memorable line from last week comprised 5 words: “Hell yes, I’m tough enough”. Maybe another is being prepared. Mr Miliband has to squeeze a lot out of the session – burnishing prime ministerial credentials, but also appealing in England to loosely-affiliated Liberal Democrats and Greens, while trying to stem the losses in Scotland to the SNP. There’s no one message that does it all.
The biggest challenge may be holding the viewers’ attention. She speaks on behalf of a small party in a small principality. So expect her to play up the possible role of Plaid Cymru MPs, by linking herself and her party to ‘progressive groupings’ in the next Parliament. The difficulty however will be that she echoes their stances, rather than leads them. The optics could reinforce that, as she stands next to the SNP leader.
The format is a gift for Ms Sturgeon. Anxious to dispel the charge that she and her party are ‘spoilers’ in terms of Westminster, sharing stage time with the national party leaders gives her the opportunity to revisit her pitch about wider political reform – ‘exporting SNP-ways to the rest of the UK’. It will be a reformist pitch but from within the system, as opposed to UKIP’s from without. There is an obvious tension for her: while she will be aiming to stress differentiation from Labour – for north of the border consumption – she has to deal with offering to support a Labour administration in Westminster.
Mr Cameron has to play a ‘me versus the rest of them’ game, and possibly being at the end of the line helps, as only one arm gesture is going to be required. For the same reason he dug in against a head to head with Mr Miliband, Mr Cameron will welcome the optics of this event. Expect him to pitch things as a choice between a government which is clearly his and clearly Conservative, as opposed to some ‘mishmash’ of most of the others standing there. But he has everyone else against him, and his party followers were not left enthused by last week’s performance. More will be expected of him this time. A mediocre ‘safety first’ performance could lead the troops pretty deflated.
The leaders of the minor parties have to haul themselves back to relevance, as the national and media campaigns gravitate towards the prime ministerial choice.
The leaders of the two major parties may be tempted into having a head to head, but with the others in the way.
There are a lot of agendas in play on Thursday evening. Post-debate, the green room really will be spinning.