Last night we had the fill in for what was originally going to be a head to head between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition. Cameron didn’t want that to happen, stared down the broadcasters, and won. We saw from the proceedings on Channel 4 that began at 9 PM Thursday evening precisely why Cameron was smart to want to do that in the first place.
First up, Cameron was interviewed by Paxman. And boy, for anyone who figured Jeremy was in semi-retirement mode, think again. He was as ruthless and cutting as ever, and soon Cameron looked like he might be in real trouble. Paxman went right after the Tories’ record over the last five years, the key plank of their entire election campaign. Then the £12 billion in proposed welfare cuts. “What exactly is going to be cut?” Paxman asked, not unreasonably. Cameron dodged the question, looking distinctly nervous.
The whole interview highlighted Cameron’s chief problem: he’s an accomplished politician and people think he’s up to the job. In fact, he’s the only politician in Britain that the majority of people really do believe is up for the job of PM, which should be a game set and match advantage. Problem is that people by and large do not like the party he fronts. They see them as a bit nasty and there to protect the interests of the rich. Thus the equivocation and ducking on the £12 billion question. If you think lopping a chunk out of the welfare bill is sound policy, you should be prepared to defend it.
Then came Cameron taking questions from the audience, followed by Miliband taking questions from the audience. This was far and away the most unwatchable bit of the programme, and made the whole thing doughnut shaped. You had the two great Paxman bits either end, between a boring morass of, I’m sorry, mostly stupid and easy to answer questions from the crowd. It was like the most boring episode of Question Time ever – and that’s saying something, isn’t it?
Thankfully, we eventually got back to Paxman, and he was no less brutal to Ed Miliband than he had been earlier to the prime minister. He even got into the whole “the wrong brother won” routine. But Miliband actually weathered it well and was, I thought, better than Cameron. Partly it’s because, for all his faults, Miliband has a vision and Cameron doesn’t, not really. Now, I may not agree with whole sections of Miliband’s vision, but it’s there.
Ed’s mission for the evening was to come across as warm, engaged, non-robotic. I think he achieved that. Cameron’s mission was to seem managerial, in charge of the facts. On this I think he faltered. Yes, the polls gave Cameron a narrow win, but anything less than that would have been a massive disaster for the Tories. I can see now why Crosby insisted the Conservatives fight to the death to keep the head to head debate from happening: Miliband only ever stood to gain, Cameron to lose. Having had the Paxman set up instead, particularly at this stage of the election campaign as opposed to a week out from polling day, will I’m sure turn out to be less damaging for the Tories in the end.
In summary: for months I’ve have felt certain the polls were going to turn definitively the Tories’ way, and that David Cameron would remain prime minister post-May 7th. Now, I’m less sure of that than ever.