General Election David Cameron Ed Miliband

Who really emerged victorious from the 'occasionally hysterical' seven-way leaders debate?

By Paul Connew | Media Expert

April 3, 2015 | 8 min read

'Oops! I just lost my election...Miliband blows his chance on TV' was the Sun's front page verdict on that historic, and occasionally hysterical, seven-way TV leaders' debate. It was a classic tabloid double entendre, but smacked of having been conceived by some backbench bright spark well before the debate even kicked off.

Leaders Debate

Sans the double entendre the Telegraph's headline 'Miliband flops as outsiders shine' reeked equally of wishful thinking rather than straight reporting or accurate analysis. By the same token, the Mirror's 'Miliband riding high after narrow Cameron is hit for six!' put partisanship above sober assessment. It also sat uncomfortably alongside the Mirror's own poll showing a dead heat between the Labour and Tory leaders.

Elsewhere and back in the Murdoch stable, The Times was decidedly more in touch with reality than the Sun with its front page headline, 'Enter the outsiders'-- fair reflection of its own YouGov snap poll that put the SNP's Nicola Sturgeon a clear winner with 28 per cent declaring her the most impressive performer, with Nigel Farage on 20 per cent, David Cameron on 18 per cent and Ed Miliband narrowly behind on 15 per cent.

The Guardian, meanwhile, switched its later edition P1 tone to reflect an ICM snap poll that put Ed Miliband ahead with a 25 per cent rating, with David Cameron just one point behind, Nigel Farage on 19 per cent, Nicola Sturgeon on 17 per cent and Nick Clegg -- undoubtedly the big loser on the night -- languishing in 5th place on just 9 per cent.

The ICM poll, commissioned by the Guardian, produced another significant statistic. When asked to choose solely between Miliband and Cameron, the response was a 50/50 dead heat. Elsewhere, however, another snap poll suggested that the Labour leader had scored by a 2-1 margin among undecided voters.

One of the more curious newspaper twists to this convoluted tale of turbulent snap polls was the Mirror's special focus on the Twitter reactions of certain football figures to ITV's seven-way debate....the only one to feature any sort of direct engagement between Cameron and Miliband, the only two men who can possibly emerge as prime minister sometime after 7 May.

From Gary Lineker there was a succinct: 'Farage is a d***'. His fellow ex-Spurs and England legend Sol Campbell opined sourly; 'I've captained a number of teams and Miliband is no leader'. Rip Ferdinand chipped in with a more measured: 'Unfortunately none of these people on stage engaged with the young generation of today.' While Joey Barton, as ever eager to outdo anyone else on the outrageous front, offered the suggestion that 'Nick Clegg is less trustworthy than Jimmy Savile'.

Away from the partisan hinterland of what used to be Fleet Street, social media certainly went into overdrive with over 1.5 million tweets during and immediately after the two-hour ITV marathon, impressively moderated by Julie Etchingham whose surprise adoption of a pair of somewhat severe spectacles somehow projected the image of a strict headmistress charged with keeping the rowdier boys and girls of the Upper 6th in line.

Out in cyberspace, Nicola Sturgeon certainly appeared to be the real winner and not just on the back of the Twitterati north of the border. That was a verdict that certainly chimed at 'Chez Connew' where, among both male and female viewers, the predominant view ( with apologies to the Sun) it 'was the wimmin wot won it' and had outshone their male rivals.

Although the SNP leader cut the biggest impression, the Greens' Natalie Bennett surprised us by producing a few statistics and no major gaffes alongside her passion, while Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood deservedly earned just about the biggest burst of audience applause and a massively supportive social media response when she slapped down Nigel Farage over a crude reference to HIV 'health tourists'.

It was significant, perhaps, that all three women leaders seemed far more willing to aggressively take on Farage than their male counterparts, a factor that triggered some heavy social media traffic championing the idea that both Conservative and Labour parties should look to the fairer sex for their next leaders.

For me, the debate proved on one hand livelier and more dynamic than I might have feared and-yes-an interesting exercise in democracy in Britain's new, fragmentary political landscape. On the other, however, it graphically illustrated the great missing factor.....a head-to-head TV debate between David Cameron and Ed Miliband who remain the only two men who stand to eventually occupy Number Ten Downing Street after the post-election horse-trading ends.

Even among my Tory friends (yes, I do have some despite being a lifelong Labour supporter and an early advocate of Ed Miliband as Gordon Brown's successor) there is a sense of embarrassment that David Cameron has ducked the head-to-head option. Or, as one puts it, 'Cynical avoidance, as dictated by Lynton Crosby, might have been the safest tactic, but it's hardly courageous and it does risk triggering the contempt of too many voters for comfort in a very tight race'.

It's a sentiment Team Miliband would do well to push harder and more ruthlessly than they have to date before polling day.

Inevitably, every party spin doctor was busy proclaiming victory for their man-or women--in the minutes immediately after the debate and the morning after. Without doubt too they will all be waiting anxiously for the first more detailed polls which can often prove significantly different than the snap polls (as evidenced by those that followed the Paxman grilling where the initial snap reaction favoured the prime minister and then the later polls suggested Miliband had fared better).

It's always important to note that a relatively small percentage of the electorate either tune in to the debates at all, or were likjely to have stuck around for the whole two hours last night. The reality is that opinion among ordinary voters, and is often shaped by selected clips on TV and radio news bulletins, or via their personal social media channels.

The next debate, however, presents both an opportunity and a potential pratfall for the Labour leader. It will be a repeat of last night minus David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

The opportunity lies in another chance for Miliband to present himself as a a prime minister-in-waiting, a strong, principled politician rather than the weak, weird, nerdish Gromit-like character the Tory propaganda machine and its media allies had managed to portray him as prior to the Paxman encounter.

The peril lies in the fact that it denies him a stage on which to confront David Cameron directly and casts him alongside the 'minor' parties, with Nigel Farage sniping at him from the far right and three feisty women coming at him from a further left wing ground than that occupied by the Labour leader- despite the 'Red Ed' label the Mail, Sun and others have attached to him.

For Labour and the Tories there is also a tricky question to face over Nicola Sturgeon's strong showing onscreen and the positive response it accrued, not least among English viewers. For Ed Miliband, the big danger is that it reinforces the prospect of the SNP seizing a hefty slice of Labour's seats in Scotland. The limited consolation is that it might reduce fears among floating English voters about the prospect of a Labour minority government, propped up by the SNP.

For David Cameron, the dilemma is whether pressing ahead too hard with the idea that Nicola Sturgeon is an extremist 'Red Witch' who would wear the trousers in any supportive act to 'Red Ed' as prime minister might just boomerang among undecided voters impressed by her 7-way debate performance.

Meanwhile it's hard to argue with the analysis from the BBC's political editor Nick Robinson, blogging from his post-cancer surgery recuperation bed, that Thursday's seven-way colourful political kaleidoscope was fascinating enough but 'no game-changer, no single moment zinger' that yet changes the odds against a hung parliament stalemate being the ultimate outcome on 7 May.

Paul Connew is a media commentator and PR adviser. He is former editor of the Sunday Mirror and deputy editor of the Daily Mirror and a lifelong Labour party supporter who backed Ed Miliband for the Labour Party leadership.

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