When the final schedule of TV debates was announced by the broadcasters, it looked to many as though David Cameron had scored a significant coup by excusing himself from a second seven-way debate and leaving Ed Miliband to toil in what was initially dubbed a ‘debate of the non-entities’.
On paper it looked a tricky assignment for the Labour leader. The risk of being portrayed from both left and right as the ‘Westminster establishment’ candidate, swimming against the tide of ‘insurgent outsiders’, seemed high. And indeed, as it turned out, Miliband did frequently find himself the primary target of cross-examination from all four of his opponents and criticism, from the Greens and nationalist parties in particular, for “not being different enough” from David Cameron.
But in truth, this situation actually worked out rather well for Ed Miliband on a number of levels.
Firstly, the nature of questioning from his opponents was largely on the assumption of “if you are the next Prime Minister”, giving Miliband the opportunity to position himself as just that – the Prime Minister in waiting.
Secondly, the lines of attack from all sides largely allowed Miliband to occupy the centre ground on most issues. He emphasised that he ‘gets it’ on deficit reduction, affirmed his commitment to Trident renewal and national security and made the case for reasonable controls on immigration whilst acknowledging the real benefits it brings. Any undecided viewers with lingering notions of ‘Red Ed’ are likely to have been reassured.
And thirdly, the absence of the Prime Minister gave Miliband an easy note to hit in both his opening and closing statements, that Cameron “hadn’t bothered” to turn up and defend his record. His closing challenge to the PM for a head-to-head was a deliberate play for the headlines, but was effective in reminding viewers that it is a straight choice as to who will be residing in Number 10 in three weeks’ time.
None of this is to suggest that it was all plain sailing for Miliband last night. It wasn’t. There were difficult moments for him: being accused by Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood of being ‘Tory-lite’ in Labour’s spending plans; being challenged by Nigel Farage on why Labour will not trust voters with a referendum on EU membership; and there were challenges too on Labour’s record of privatisation in the NHS.
A repeated strong performance of Nicola Sturgeon represents the biggest headache of all for Labour, as it is increasingly difficult to see what they can do between now and May 7th to turn around their dire polling situation in Scotland.
Sturgeon struck a comparatively restrained tone in her attacks on Miliband, again offering to help make him PM if he will offer a ‘real alternative’ to David Cameron. But, again with an eye on the centre ground and crucial English marginals, Miliband rebuffed these advances, instead choosing to speak up for the Union and pledging to be a Prime Minister “for all parts of the United Kingdom”. Nevertheless, as newspapers of a certain persuasion are keen to emphasise this morning, an issue by issue deal between Labour and SNP remains a possibility.
And what of those two particular viewers who will (surely) have been watching at home: the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister?
For Nick Clegg, it was a major blow not to have been in this debate. Having no opportunity to defend his record while ceding entirely the mantle of “challenger” to a range of other parties will have made for an unpleasant night’s viewing for the Lib Dem leader. However it was a decision that was out of his hands.
For David Cameron, on balance, he may conclude that participating in a second seven-way debate may have been better than leaving the way clear for his principal opponent to look, dare I say it, Prime Ministerial, without having the opportunity to rebut some of his messages. However, he will have been pleased that Sturgeon’s strong performance is likely to cement Labour’s Scottish difficulties.
But for Miliband, who came out on top of the snap poll by Survation, with 35% declaring him the winner (with Sturgeon on 31% and Farage on 27%), this was a good night’s work and another step towards demonstrating that he is not the liability for Labour that he was characterised as before the campaign began.
If he didn’t already, David Cameron must surely know by now that he has a serious battle on his hands.