The peak viewing figure for the 2010 TV election debates was 10 million or so. We will find out the figure for yesterday evening’s Sky/Channel 4 extravaganza later today. It may have been about a million. Sure, a million people is a lot of people. But how many stuck out their viewing throughout? How many will have been undecided at the start? How many changed their minds? In short, how much effect will the event have on May’s result? The answer is surely: not much.
The Twitter view was that Miliband won. Moral: during the coming campaign, ignore Twitter verdicts. YouGov had Cameron as the winner by 51 per cent to 49 per cent, and ICM by 54 per cent to 46 per cent. The Prime Minister was polished; the Opposition Leader passionate – as Paul Waugh put it. Perhaps this explains why the TV audience was somnolent and respectful to Cameron; more lively with Miliband, and with an undertow of feeling for him that was pitched somewhere, I thought, between support and derision.
Then again, maybe the Twitter verdict was the right one after all. 46 and 49 per cent for Miliband respectively ain’t at all bad for him. Team Cameron was correct: the experience of watching the Labour leader can only beat expectations, which is why they were right to avoid a head-to-head debate. I thought Miliband’s guff about his brother was pitiful shlock, but Paxman’s sneering and drawling had the counter-productive effect of working the live audience round to Miliband’s side.
Last thoughts. With voters, Cameron is ahead on leadership and almost everything else; Miliband is ahead on values and almost nothing else. The election will not be decided by which man the voters prefer – not alone, at any rate. But Miliband knows that he must seize the chance that the campaign offers to close the gap between his and Cameron’s personal ratings. And he knows, too, that if he can’t do it by getting out, onto TV and being seen he won’t do it all. That’s why he was prepped up to the eyebrows, and desperate to seize the moment.