• The first TV election debate in 2010 had over 9 million viewers.  Last week’s Sky/Channel 4 event pulled in over three million.  We will find out yesterday evening’s ITV debate figure later today.  But it looks to date as though, this time round, fewer people are engaged with the election TV shows…but still enough for these to make a bit of a difference.  Our verdict last week was that David Cameron won but Ed Miliband gained – and, indeed, some of his ratings have improved.
  • The question in yesterday’s wake is therefore whether either man has yet made a decisive breakthrough in this election.  The sum of the polls to date suggests that none has done so.  So did four special debate polls. ICM showed Miliband ahead of Cameron by a point. Survation showed Cameron and Miliband tied, and ComRes showed Farage joing them.  YouGov showed Sturgeon well in front, and Farage second.
  • The next question, then, is who gained any relative advantage….
  • David Cameron. His election strategy is that competence v chaos will work in the end.  It follows that his plan yesterday was to rise above the fray of the seven-person event; for him to stay calm and make no mistakes (he dealt cooly with a rogue protestor).  Cameron carried it out to the letter – sharply rebutting Miliband over Mid-Staffs and zero hours, but otherwise remaining presidential (from one point of view) or passive (from another). His aggregate score was higher than Miliband’s – so he has led his rival in both debates – and indeed anyone else’s.
  • Ed Miliband.  Team Miliband knows that he has to break through with voters to get and keep Labour up to the 35 per cent that seems to be their target.  He showed signs of doing so in the first debate, and the voter verdict on the second shows that he certainly didn’t flop.  His aim was to interrupt Cameron, thereby suggesting that he’s of equivalent political weight, and to keep reminding viewers that he’s the only alternative Prime Minister.  He more or less accomplished his mission.
  • Nick Clegg.  The proverbial visitor from Mars would have gasped to be told that the Liberal Democrat leader has been deputy to the Conservative one for five years. Clegg’s plan was to counter the charge that he’s Cameron’s poodle.  He thus spent much of the evening urinating on the Prime Minister’s leg, while trying to avoid also utilising the Miliband lampost.  Clegg was a ghostly echo of the young turk who swept all before him in 2010 – direct, quick, potentially engaging.  But he got badly bossed by Nigel Farage during the immigration debate.
  • Nigel Farage.  The UKIP leader’s task is to use the status that the BBC has given it as a major party – together with his two TV election debate appearances – to re-engage with the 25 per cent or more of the electorate who at times consider supporting his party.  That the Twitterati didn’t like his linking of HIV and migrants won’t have bothered him in the least.  Rather, his aim was to remind potential UKIP voters that he’s an insurgent outsider. He came in third on the evening in the snap polls.
  • Nicola Sturgeon.  Her aim was to assail Cameron and undermine Miliband, all the while representing the SNP as fresh, uncompromised, and not part of an old boy’s club.  In many ways, her task was similar to Farage’s – to pitch at Scottish voters as part of a new force just as he was pitching at English ones.  Her answers didn’t add up.  And she won’t be at Westminster after the election.  But she was at least as effective in her task as the UKIP leader was in his, and is a far more modern type of politician.

The other two leaders didn’t trouble the scorers.

  • All in all, it was a strange event.  It was useful in that it reminded viewers that, as matters stand, we’re heading for a hung Parliament in which these minor parties will be major players.  And it was useless in that it told us nothing about which of them would be willing to support others in a coalition or confidence and supply deal.
  • The first TV event got Miliband in front of the voters, which seems to have helped him.  The second may have assisted Farage and Sturgeon more than their rivals.  But it plainly won’t move the election on its axis.  There’s only one TV event than could – the special Question Time edition starring Cameron, Miliband and Clegg, three weeks before polling day, chaired by David Dimbleby.  And even that is unlikely.

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