David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg took part in the final election television event last night in front of a Question Time audience in Leeds. Last night was originally meant to be the final leaders debate, but Cameron rejected the offer claiming debates would dominate the campaign. In contrast, yesterday’s event received little build up or anticipation. This was reflected in the viewing figures. Only 4.3m viewers tuned in to watch last night, losing out to Emmerdale which received 5.2m.
With an estimated 10m floating voters still to make up their mind ahead of polling day, last night’s Question Time was one of the final opportunities to make a direct appeal to undecided voters. Cameron and Miliband in particular received intense scrutiny from the audience, particularly around issues of trust and their plans in a Hung Parliament.
Audience members accused both Cameron and Miliband of not being honest about events that will unfold on 8 May. One member of the audience even suggested the public would respect politicians more if they came clean and acknowledged the fact they were unlikely to win a majority. In a political system which seems increasingly incapable of producing a strong majority government, politicians campaign as if nothing has changed.
Both Cameron and Miliband appeared to be caught off guard by the intensity of the questioning, but improved as time went on. Clegg was also pressed on the issue of trust, but the audience were slightly kinder than with the two candidates for PM. An ICM poll gave the victory to Cameron (44 per cent), with Miliband in second (38 per cent) and Clegg in third (19 per cent).
Beginning the evening, Cameron deflected the suggestions that the Conservatives would look to cut child credits and restrict child benefits. Cameron was pressed on the familiar issue of how the Conservative Party plans to save £12bn on the welfare budget, and to the annoyance of some of the audience he refused to spell out further details.
The audience were generally quite tough on Cameron, with several questions on the issue of trust, such as why voters don’t trust the Conservatives on the NHS. In general, Cameron handled the Q&A format relatively well, remaining calm but coming across in his new revitalised self, after a subdued start.
The first question to Miliband focused on how voters can trust Labour on tackling the deficit. The audience gave Ed a difficult time on the infamous letter left by Liam Byrne in 2010, with Ed pointing to Labour’s new fiscal promise.
Under tough questioning, it was easy to forget that a few months ago under such circumstances Miliband could have crumbled quite easily. Instead, Miliband maintained his impressive campaign performances of late. The issue of economic credibility still hangs over Labour’s chances though, and he got less applause than Cameron.
On Labour and the SNP, Miliband said if not doing a deal with the SNP meant not being in government “then so be it”. He carefully left open support on a vote by vote basis though. In short, Miliband is asking Nicola Sturgeon whether the SNP will vote down Labour to bring in a Conservative led government.
Clegg also faced a question on trust to begin with, over tuition fees. Clegg attempted to shift the question to point out how much the Lib Dems had achieved in office, highlighting that he had apologised “in song no less” for the tuition fees pledge. Clegg tried to cast himself in contrast to Cameron and Miliband, criticising the pair for not discussing where they would compromise in the event of a Hung Parliament. After the audience had given the previous two leaders a tough time on this point, Clegg used it to his advantage.
Clegg reiterated his position that the largest party in terms of seats should get first chance to form a government. He did add, however, if no deal could be reached then other options would need to be considered (ie with the second largest party).
In truth, we did not learn much last night that we did not already know, apart from the fact politicians will now think twice before appearing in front of a live audience in Leeds. The most tweeted about moment of the night? That would be Miliband tripping and nearly falling over as he left the stage of course.