First of all, as many pundits have already covered but is necessary to say again, the audience were great, weren’t they? I was worried beforehand given the quality of the questions we had at the Paxman thing a month ago, that we’d end up in “Mr Miliband, your campaign has the momentum of a runaway train – why are you so popular?” territory, but the fine people of Leeds were in no mood for placation. The questions were fairly brutal: Cameron was asked in no uncertain terms about where the cuts would fall; Miliband was asked whether the last Labour government overspent or not; Clegg was asked about tuition fees straight off.
Cameron had a very good night. In fact, I’d say the first ten minutes of his appearance was better than the whole of the Conservative’s campaign so far taken as a whole. Given he’s been a bit manic in the last few public outings, I was worried we’d get more of the “been up all night and just drank a gallon of coffee and took some speed for good measure” Dave last night. No, instead he was measured, Cameron at his best. He still wouldn’t tell us what he’s going to cut, but he effectively used circumlocution to get round that.
Miliband, on the other hand, picked a bad night to not be particularly great. He was easily the worst of the three. His nadir came when asked about whether Labour overspent and he said no. One of Labour’s big problems in this election campaign remains the fact that at no point in the last five years did they decide to just take the hit for the overspending of the last government and move on. Instead, their pitch that they’ll do better this time, if you give them a chance, is undercut by the refusal to even admit the mistakes of last time, never mind explain or apologise for them.
Clegg was on his best form and handled the questions well. He was handed a bit of a gift near the end when a man asked a silly question about terrorists that allowed Nick to play statesman, but apart from that the questions were as brutal as you would have imagined they would be. There was even a petty remark phrased as a question along the lines of looking for another job and the party being irrelevant that Clegg fielded well. Nick did have the advantage of being the only one of the three who can be completely honest about the fact that no one is going to get a majority, a lie the other two had to trumpet for obvious reasons but that nonetheless affected their credibility.
Will last night change anything polls wise? I very much doubt it. The ICM poll taken immediately afterwards showed that Cameron won 44%, to Miliband’s 38% and Clegg’s 19%. All of them can feel okay about those figures: Cameron won; Miliband coming in only six points behind the prime minister is a great score when you consider how much worse he was combined with Cameron’s much higher personal ratings; 19% is double what the Lib Dems are currently polling.