The Blog

The Leaders Debates

We have had two sets of leaders debates plus the Paxman interviews. Has there been anything in any of them that may sway the opinion of voters? The sad answer is "probably not".

We have had two sets of leaders debates plus the Paxman interviews. Has there been anything in any of them that may sway the opinion of voters? The sad answer is "probably not".

Let us put the Paxman interviews (as opposed to calling them a leaders debate) to one side. The other two events saw seven, and then five, party leaders present their respective party cases on a number of topical issues.

Both debates, at least in my opinion, were 'won' by Nicola Sturgeon. But the SNP are only fighting the 59 Scottish seats. Thus her call to arms was directed at them, while at the same time trying not to frighten the English voters. This was a successful approach in the first debate; it did not work so well in the second. Leanne Wood, the leader of Plaid Cymru, was targeting Welsh voters - and particularly so in the first debate. But for both Plaid Cymru and the SNP, the real elections take place in 2016 - for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.

David Cameron arguably appeared prime ministerial in his concluding comments on the first debate, although for much of the second half of that debate he appeared almost peripheral. His absence in the second was a miscalculation. While there were times in the second debate when the bickering between the leaders got unbearable, there were numerous attacks against the Conservatives that could have been - and should have been - answered. The spinning about his lack of presence in the second debate portrayed a very narrow and selective interpretation of the facts. "Don't invite me because I will refuse" has been reinterpreted as "I wasn't invited".

For Nick Clegg, it was even worse. His performance in the first debate was poor, especially by the standards he set in 2010. In the second debate, neither he nor his party rated a mention. They were forgotten. For Danny Alexander to then blame David Cameron for not letting the Lib Dems appear was an even bigger miscalculation. The suggestion appears the Lib Dems need to ask Tory permission before they ever do anything.

The expectations of Ed Miliband were low prior to the first debate. He surpassed them. In the second debate, there was an opportunity for him to appear prime ministerial. After all, of the five leaders in the second debate, only he has a realistic opportunity to become the next prime minister. While he performed above expectations again, he was bettered by Nicola Sturgeon. This has left a question mark as to whether or not the SNP will be pulling Labour strings behind the scenes after the election.

Natalie Bennett, the leader of the Greens, had an opportunity to place her party as a viable repository for protest votes with the possible added bonus of gaining a few more seats. In this she did not fail, but there was also little to instil confidence. Yet, of all the UK parties, the Greens will probably be the recipient of the centre-left protest votes.

And then there is the marmite figure of Nigel Farage. Farage portrays himself as the leader of the only party that is different to the others; the party that will tell you the truth. In the past, Farage has excelled. But in both leaders debates he was somewhat flat. The endless campaigning since the 2014 European Parliamentary elections appears to have caught upon him. He caused offence in both debates - over the treatment of sufferers of HIV in the first debate, and about the composition of the studio audience in the second. It was almost as if he wanted to be attacked, to portray himself as being attacked by the establishment. In this he was successful. His performances were about motivating the core UKIP supporters. Those leaning in that direction will probably be more inclined to do so. Those less so will probably be hardened against him.

So what did we learn? Firstly, we can expect a Green-Plaid Cymru-SNP alliance in the next parliament. They are the anti-austerity parties. On the issue of cuts, these three parties set themselves apart from the others. Interestingly, all three have ruled out supporting the Conservatives, but have warned Labour they will not support a "Tory-lite" approach to cuts. Coalition or, more likely, support on an issue by issue basis will come at a cost: higher spending in Scotland and Wales (and England), and fewer cuts. On the issue of nuclear weapons, a potential Labour minority government will be supported by the Conservatives, so any opposition by these smaller parties will be inconsequential.

UKIP, on the other hand, will look to the Conservatives. The problem is the demand for an immediate 'In-Out' referendum on EU membership will not be met by the Conservatives: this has been made very clear. It is unclear how UKIP will act thereafter.

And this leaves the Lib Dems. In the first debate, Clegg suggested that he could look to a coalition with either the Conservatives or Labour. The lack of an appearance in the second debate may have undermined this approach. Despite all of the post-debate spinning by the Lib Dems, they have clearly missed a trick here. It is easy to be wise after the event, but Clegg should have been standing behind a rostrum in this debate - if only to continue the attacks against David Cameron from the first debate. Despite this, another Conservative-Lib Dem coalition is not impossible.

In sum: were there any gaffes? No. Were there any pieces of brilliance that would swing voters behind one party? No. But this does not mean it was not interesting viewing. The debate with seven leaders worked - as did the debate with five. There was a different dynamic without a 'government' presence. This should be built into all future campaigns - even if some party leaders may be a little 'frit'!