Cameron, Miliband and Clegg's Question Time: Who emerged victorious from their bruising night with the people?
This time it was the people wot won it. No question, no doubt. For the first time in this stage-managed, hermetically-sealed safety zone of a general election campaign, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg came face to face with real people, with real views and a raw, robust degree of disrespect rather than the tame, lame parade of the party faithful rolled out during those endless photo opportunity roadshows.
In the spin room before and after the BBC Question Time special, it was, of course, business as usual with the same old cast of politicians proclaiming their man the winner and the same parade of partisan pundits pontificating into microphones. But the real deal was out of their hands; it had been taken over by the true stars of the night, the blunt, plain-speaking Yorkshire men and women, left, right and centre, who effectively put the politicians on public trial with just 7 days to go until a much wider public pass sentence.
Even as a lifelong Labour supporting ex-editor who backs Ed Miliband, it was hard to disagree with the Daily Mail's splash headline, 'The Night Real Voters Finally Had Their Say'. And, boy, those real voters weren't pulling their punches and, it's a fair bet that Dave, Ed and Nick probably felt they had just gone the distance with both Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao.
An early snap ICM snap poll for the Guardian (but enthusiastically seized on by pro-Tory rivals and party spinners) showed a narrow points win for the prime minister. But it's worth pointing out that the same snap poll showed a similar result after the first TV leaders' debate only to be overtaken within 48 hours by polls showing Miliband the winner after people caught up with news bulletin clips or did their own online analysis.
Without doubt it was the Labour leader who seemed the target of much of the harder punches. Arguably that's the way it should be for the challenger. To his credit, Miliband was (for my money, at least) the braver fighter on the night, as well as the less predictable.
He risked leading with his chin by rejecting an audience member's charge that Labour had overspent in office and 'bankrupted' the country, a defence strategy that drew some loud jeers and a charge of 'liar' and 'absolutely ludicrous' from his accuser who was in full Manny Pacquiao mode. Miliband countered: "There was a global financial crisis, there was a high deficit. That deficit has not been cleared. It will be the mission of my government to cut the deficit every year and balance the books." It was a good point, but somehow Miliband threw away in a barely audible aside the powerful counter punch that before that global fiscal crisis messrs Cameron and Osborne had accused the Labour government of over-regulating the banks.
Inevitably this was the encounter that grabbed the headlines for some of the Tory papers, with the Times front page declaring: "Miliband 'savaged' for 'lies' over spending". The Telegraph weighed in with "Miliband stumbles over his spending record" – a neat play on Miliband's actual stumble as he left the stage. It looked a genuine slip of the foot rather than the Labour leader reeling from the audience's verbal onslaught, but you never know...
But, brave or foolish, it was Miliband who produced the most dramatic moment, with his toughest-yet rejection of any sort of deal with the SNP despite Nicola Sturgeon (very much the star in absentia) persistently predicting that's his passport to Number 10. No deals on Trident, no deals on the deficit, no deals on anything, Nicola. That was Miliband's big gamble to hit back at the Tory strategy (backed by their newspaper supporters) to deliver a knockout blow by convincing English voters a 'Red Ed' premiership would have its tail wagged by the SNP dog.
True or not, Miliband went so far as to suggest he would sacrifice his dream of becoming PM if the price was a pact with Nicola, Alex and their incoming army of Tartan MPs. It was the angle seized on by the more sympathetic prints with the Independent front page featuring "Miliband: I will not do deal with the SNP to become PM", its sister the 'i' echoing "No deal with the SNP" and the Guardian "Miliband hardens his line: I will not do deal with the SNP".
And David Cameron? Even Labour critics would have to concede this was the Tory leader's best performance on the TV stage so far. Not so much in terms of the punches he landed but the ones he ducked and dived with an elusiveness that Floyd Mayweather himself might envy. Why had he ducked debating Ed Miliband head to head, demanded an Asian gentleman pointedly. Even the Tories among the friends I watched with groaned at that.
It was a loaded question, given that the only two men who can become prime minister were in the same place, with the same audience, the same moderator but – at David Cameron's insistence – appearing on the same stage seconds apart. The prime minister's response was polished but a hostage to fortune: "This, giving you the chance to answer questions directly, this is more powerful than a televised debate". He looked momentarily like a man bracing himself for a flurry of follow up punches. But none came from the audience or moderator David Dimbleby.
Signal a sigh of relief from the Tories to my right, but with a prediction that the following Ed Miliband would seize on it to accuse his rival for Number 10 of being too 'frit' or arrogant to give the electorate a TV head to head. They expected it, I expected it, but when it came to his turn Ed made no mention of that ducked 'head to head'. It was, perhaps, an opportunity missed, although many on social media –including my old colleague Alastair Campbell – were quick to land some cyberspace blows on 'ducking Dave'.
But at least I was 10 quid richer after winning a bet that the prime minister would turn up armed with that (in)famous note left by Labour Treasury minister Liam Byrne after their 2010 defeat, which said that there was 'no money' left in the coffers. It has, as Miliband was at pains to say, become David Cameron's 'regular prop' on the campaign trail. But it clearly scored well with many in the Leeds Town Hall audience who either chose to take it literally or don't appreciate attempts at gallows humour from defeated politicos.
Although he didn't face quite such a tough line of questioning as Miliband, David Cameron did face some sharp questioning on the NHS which he countered predictably with talk of a 'strong economy' being the key to protecting it and that improving the health service was 'my life's work'. Once again, he cited the tragic story of his disabled son Ivan and the 'wonderful' treatment from the NHS during his short life. Almost inevitably, some to the left of me complained "Not again... he's overplaying that sympathy card".
To a mixed response, Cameron reasserted his commitment to an EU referendum. It was, without doubt, a savvy move given some polls indicate that UKIP sympathisers might be drifting back to the Tories for fear of the much-hyped 'bogeyman' of a Lab/SNP government.
So, for that audience, was his claim that an in/out EU referendum was the 'red line' in any coalition negotiations and that he did not 'want' to do a deal 'in a darkened room with Nick Clegg'? It was an interesting assertion given that it coincided with both the Financial Times and the Economist coming out in favour of another Conservative-Lib Dem coalition as the best result on 7 May.
The word 'want' was, perhaps, the Achilles' heel in Cameron's fairly polished performance. He didn't 'want' to cut child benefit or child tax credits was his response to questions about the hand grenade suddenly tossed into the election campaign by George Osborne's Lib Dem Treasury deputy, Danny Alexander. But, as some in the audience and many out there in social media were quick to point out, 'want' isn't the same as that other four-letter word 'won't' and David Cameron has a history of saying one thing in opposition and doing the opposite once in office'.
And what of the aforementioned Nick Clegg? Well, at least, here was the only total 'realist' on the platform, albeit a realism based on the acknowledgement that he was the only one of the trio who knows he won't be prime minister in May. That said, he's clearly a man clinging to the hope that the Economist and Financial Times' wishes comes true and he's still deputy prime minister. Funnily enough, however, Clegg united my friends to the left and to the right who all delighted in the very real prospect that he might well lose his Sheffield Hallam seat.
Predictably, Clegg faced awkward questions from the audience over tuition fees, broken promises, trust and the wisdom of coalition deals. Equally predictably, he countered with the argument that the Lib Dems had prevented the Tories from swinging further right during coalition and that they could do the same in any future Cameron or Miliband-led government.
And, if nothing else, he produced the best joke and the most accurate prediction of the night when he said both Ed and Dave needed to go and "lay down in a darkened room" if they thought they'd win an outright majority. It produced, perhaps, the highest decibel audience reaction.
So, for all its fire and ire, was this absorbing political trial by the people, the game-changer in this cliffhanger general election? The plethora of polls over the next few days will give us a clue. My money says it might make a very small difference, but not a decisive one and that, alas, the Tory spin doctors might have marginally more reason to feel pleased than their Labour counterparts.
Nevertheless, I still have a strong hunch that the bookies are right and that the likeliest outcome on 7 May will be a hung parliament with the Tories narrowly the largest single party, but with Ed Miliband the favourite to enter Number 10 after much horse-trading on the basis that anti-Tory MPs substantially outnumber Conservative members. But the spectre of Nicola Sturgeon, the woman who isn't even standing for Westminster but hovering over it like a whip-cracking dominatrix, could yet turn the prospect of feast into famine for Ed Miliband.
Paul Connew is a media commentator and PR adviser and former editor of the Sunday Mirror and deputy editor of the Daily Mirror. He is a lifelong Labour supporter and was an early backer of Ed Miliband for the Labour leadership.