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Who won the leaders' debate? Media and comms experts rate the performances

Seven party leaders battled it out in a televised debate tonight for the first – and last – time in this year's general election campaign.

The two men who could be prime minister after the May 7 vote, Conservative leader David Cameron and Labour's Ed Miliband, were joined in the ITV debate by the Lib Dems' Nick Clegg, Ukip's Nigel Farage, SNP's Nicola Sturgeon, the Green Party's Natalie Bennett and Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood.

But who presented themselves best and who made the most of their night in the prime time television spotlight?

We asked media experts and comms specialists for their snap verdicts as the debate came to a close.

Paul Connew, former Sunday Mirror editor

It was the women wot won it. Maybe it's because they aren't so familiar on our screens but Nicola Sturgeon, Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood and a startlingly gaffe-free Green Natalie Bennett cut the mustard in a way their male rivals couldn't muster. That was certainly the reaction of both the male and female viewers in my household.

That, however,was in marked contrast to ITV's instant ComRes poll which had Cameron, Miliband and Farage in a tie for first place and a Guardian poll giving Miliband a tiny lead over Cameron as top performer, with Nick Clegg rated an also-ran in both snap polls.

Interestingly, however, the Twitersphere – running at 11,000 tweets a minute – reflected my own gut reaction and that of Chez Connew by rating feisty Nicola Sturgeon the most impressive performer and that 1 million-plus reaction level didn't apparently rely overmuch on Scottish tweeters. Whether that serves as a bigger shock/blow to Ed Miliband or David Cameron is an intriguing question with an answer blowing unpredictably in the electoral wind.

A YouGov snap poll for the Times came in more in line with the Twittersphere (and the Connew family) by making Nicola Sturgeon the big winner. On one level that's bad news for Ed Miliband, who came in for some hefty blows from the trio of left-leaning female leaders on stage, but it could also prove a big worry for David Cameron if it undermines the Tories' strategy of branding her a rabid extremist who would dangerously wag the tail of the dog if Ed Miliband becomes prime minister.

With ITV's Julie Etchingham's heavy glasses giving her the appearance of a headmistress keeping the rowdiest boys and girls in class in line, the seven-leader debate proved livelier than pessimists might have expected but also reinforced the simple maths that seven into two just doesn't go.

Neither David Cameron nor Ed Miliband came anywhere close to landing a knockout blow on each other and it was easy to see why the Labour leader – less impressive tonight than he was facing a Paxman grilling – had so badly wanted that head to head with the prime minister.

If nothing else, I suspect last night's many-headed hydra of a debate served to reinforce the public's belief that they deserved a one-to-one between the only two men who can become prime minister after May 7 and the Miliband team would be well-advised to keep driving home that message in the post-debate fallout.

Francis Ingham, director general, PRCA

Who won? Well possibly the image of politics as a whole. Scrappy? Yes. Messy? 'Hell yes'. But in some parts a good debate.

Which leader did best? The outlaws prospered. Sturgeon made the case for Scotland. Leanne Wood the case for Wales. Natalie Bennett the case for melting icebergs. And Farage made the case for a disgruntled England.

They will all have been happy with tonight. As for the big boys?

Clegg tried hard to reprise his balancing act of five years ago, but this time nobody 'agreed with Nick'. That's the price of coalition I guess.

And the two key players? They were shoved to the margins; they each had one or two great lines. They each tried to rise above it all. They are, after all, our potential prime minister. And neither of them drowned. They made their case, oftentimes over one-another. Job done. And now on to the real campaign...

John McLellan, director, Scottish Newspaper Society

My former Conservative Party colleague Andrew Cooper wrote in The Guardian yesterday that on past records tonight’s big leaders’ TV debate would ultimately make no difference to the result.

And so it proved. Regular glances at Twitter showed plenty of party supporters saying their boss was brilliant and opponents useless, incompetent, dishonest or all three. And for you at home, as Ed Miliband irritatingly said to camera at every opportunity? You will have learnt nothing you didn’t already know.

So David Cameron wants you to believe the economy is only safe with the Tories, Ed Milliband that only Labour can protect the NHS, Nick Clegg that they are both as bad as each other. And Nicola Sturgeon, with her trademark sarcastic laugh to the fore as usual, that the SNP has more answers than all three put together.

Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood was predictably parochial and Natalie Bennett was, well, better than her radio interview and spoke up for wild animals.

Fast-talking and furious, Nigel Farage came across as mean-spirited and spiteful, and the few rounds of spontaneous applause were mostly when he was under attack, justifiably by Wood for his dreadful remarks about foreign people with HIV. It was a rare moment of drama in what was two hours of viewers’ lives they won’t get again.

With a panel of seven it was Weakest Link for political nerds, and at times Julie Etchingham even sounded like Annie Robinson as she did her best to give everyone their say. I’m pretty sure I heard her shout “bank” at least once.

If there was a winner it was probably Nicola Sturgeon, with a re-tread of many of the populist referendum arguments which played as well to the Salford crowd as they did to the Hydro. Second? I’d give it to Cameron for sticking to the script, dealing adeptly with a heckler and not being as annoying as Ed.

But then that’s what I expected.

Nick Laitner, managing director, MHP Communications

After two hours, did anything really happen tonight to really shift the dial? While Ed Miliband probably exceeded expectations with an assured performance, David Cameron was fairly unruffled throughout.

Among the smaller parties, Nicola Sturgeon performed with her usual flair and will have done the SNP’s chances no harm. She was also reassuring and sensible enough to persuade a lot of people south of the border that the SNP aren’t as extreme as they’ve been painted, which may help Labour’s chances on 7 May.

Nick Clegg did ok with a very difficult hand, and Nigel Farage’s bar-room bore act is certainly beginning to wear thin, although it probably played well to his increasingly unsavoury base.

Both Lianne Wood and to a lesser extent Natalie Bennett achieved some cut-through with their particular audiences, although they were very much the ‘toilet break’ participants at the MHP debate night party tonight.

All in all, it was a bit of a 0-0 draw. Which is exactly what David Cameron came for. When he curls up in bed at No 10 tonight, he’ll be the happier of the main party leaders.

Michael Moszynski, CEO, London Advertising

When Question Time moved from four to five participants in the interest of diversity it destroyed the dynamic of the show and was far less engaging for the audience.

So increasing the number of party leaders in the TV Debate from three to seven did the same. An issue magnified by having two who were in Government and three who don't compete nationally (but oddly no-one from Northern Ireland).

Reading Twitter and seeing the immediate ComRes poll that was impressively on the ITV news some five minutes after the debate ended, it seems apparent that all it achieved was to confirm what people already thought.

So in short it was pretty dull TV viewing and according to my fellow running mate in politics at LSE and Cameron's pollster, Lord Copper, TV leader debates make no difference outside the Westminster bubble:

Remember Cleggmania in 2011? His party went on to lose 10 per cent of his MPs.

Quote of the night: "Put your money where your heart is" (Nick Clegg on the NHS.)

Surprise of the night, Ed Milliband, "It's not prejudiced to be concerned about and put controls on immigration", which reminded me of a poster we ran for the Conservatives in the 2005 campaign which Labour branded as racist. [Moszynski ran the Tories' 2005 campaign.]

Winner of the night: the media agency that booked the Register to Vote TV ad that was first up in the ad break. Although having watched the debate I am not sure many viewers would have been inspired to do so.