The leadership debates: No clear winners, but some losers

Punters, pundits and political obsessives were all looking for a knock-out blow, but in the end the great leaders' debate did not quite deliver.

There were no clear winners but some had a better night than others, argues Rahman
There were no clear winners but some had a better night than others, argues Rahman

Ed Miliband performed well on the night, but in a format that was always likely to assist the smaller parties, the strategic victor may well have been David Cameron, who escaped the debate without serious damage and who will be quietly pleased by the strong showing by Nicola Sturgeon, if it helps maintain the nationalist surge in Labour’s heartland.

The risk for the Prime Minister was that he would find himself isolated and under concerted attack from the other leaders who would seize their one chance to go for him.

This didn’t materialise.

He repeated familiar themes from the campaign trail, but as the debate went on he stepped back and passed up opportunities to intervene.
This was criticised by observers, but was probably a pre-planned safety-first approach.

Labour’s communications team will have been pleased that Ed Miliband again confounded critics, looking relaxed and successfully positioning himself as serious contender for the office of Prime Minister.

Twitter users highlighted the fact that he spent much of the time looking directly at the camera, but this just showed that he realised that his real audience was not in the studio, but people at home.

In contrast with the 2010 debates, when the party leaders contested the centre ground and pitched to floating voters, the party leaders in this debate pursued not only different strategies, but different slices of the electorate too.

A factor perhaps which contributed to post-debate polls each declaring a different winner.

The exception was Nick Clegg, who aimed to steer a middle course and argue that the Lib Dems would be a moderating force on either Labour or the Conservatives in government.

He tried to demonstrate this by using his first intervention to challenge Cameron, a tactic that didn’t quite work following five years in government together.

Nigel Farage confirmed his status as a marmite politician, pushing an anti-politics line and dismissing the rest of the panel as the "politically correct, political class."

His comments on immigrants with HIV will have repelled many viewers, but he will believe that his argument and overall message will resonate with current and potential UKIP voters.

What of Natalie Bennett?

She had a clear anti-austerity stance, but looked nervous, appeared to be reading her closing statement and will be relieved to have got through the evening without another "mind blank".

The programme was watched across the United Kingdom, but Leanne Wood spoke almost entirely to voters in Wales.

Nicola Sturgeon by contrast came armed with messages not just for voters north of the border, but the rest of the country too, arguing that a large SNP block in Westminster would be a constructive voice for all.

Critics will point out that the party’s main strategic purpose is the break-up of the United Kingdom, but there is no doubting the effectiveness of Sturgeon either in the debate or in recent weeks.

Expect Labour strategists to start planning for the next debate on 16 April, when Miliband will be in the unenviable position of being the sole Westminster voice.

Razi Rahman is managing director, political, at Bell Pottinger

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