In the last of the television events in this year’s general election, we see the leaders of the three main parties face the Question Time audience.
Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservatives, Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband for Labour and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats appeared individually in the 90-minute session chaired by political debate veteran David Dimbleby in Leeds Town Hall.
This was the leaders’ last chance to demonstrate why the electorate should entrust them at a national level. After this it would be back to the campaign trail for the leaders as the last sprint of this marathon campaign draws to a close on Thursday 7 May. And with a predicted 20% of voters still undecided there is plenty to play for.
The session comes after Cameron has pledged to pass legislation preventing the government from increasing income tax and VAT. However, as Parliament can’t constitutionally bind itself to legislation, this promise would merely be symbolic.
Lib Dem Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander claimed the Tories wanted to cut child benefits during the last parliament. This has been disputed by George Osborne the Chancellor, who said it was the Lib Dems that proposed this and the evidence should speak for itself in that the cuts weren’t passed.
Filled with energy and enthusiasm, Cameron was the first to face the audience. The first question was with regards to Danny Alexander’s claims about the Child Benefit and tax credit cuts which are alleged to have been proposed by the Tories.
Cameron said, ‘It was something I rejected as PM and I reject it today.’ He added that welfare did need reform but pointed to the evidence that rebuts Alexander’s claim that child tax credits had increased by £452 and child poverty had continued to decrease throughout his government. He accused Miliband of proposing a programme of unlimited welfare.
Cameron argued that welfare savings had to be made, otherwise the savings would have to come from the likes of the NHS. Cameron argued a key part of reducing the welfare bill was to get another two million people back in to work and capping the amount a household could claim in benefits.
Cameron brandished the letter left by the Labour Secretary to the Treasury that said, ‘I’m afraid to tell you there’s no money left.’ He argued that the Tories had created the fastest growing economy in the western world and he didn’t want to go back to the mess of the previous government.
One audience member asked why the polls showed the public found it hard to trust the Tories with the NHS. Cameron brought up his emotive and personal story of the use of the NHS with his late disabled son. He argued that he wanted to have a seven-day NHS with GPs open from 8am to 8pm.
He argued that the expensive top-down reorganisation he had helmed was designed to cut costs on bureaucrats and allow for more doctors and nurses. He added that he had seven days left to try and convince people that a strong economy means a strong NHS. He pointed to Greece and Portugal who had failing economies which were affecting their health services.
With regards to the legally binding lock on VAT and income tax rises, Cameron argued that he had seen the books and knew what needed to be done to balance them and argued that he didn’t need to increase these taxes – in fact, he wanted to cut them. He argued that through welfare reform and efficiency savings of £1 in every £100.
An audience member rebutted and asked, ‘If you know what the books look like why won’t you tell us where the money would come from?’ Cameron repeated the figures of £5bn from tax evaders and savings through department savings.
On the EU and immigration, he argued that we could control immigration from outside of the EU by closing bogus colleges and having caps. Inside the EU he would bring in rules preventing EU migrants from claiming jobseekers’ allowance, if after six months they don’t have a job they need to go back to their home country. He also stated a migrant would have to pay in for four years before claiming any benefits.
Dimbleby argued under 6% of EU migrants claimed benefits. Cameron argued that we were effectively giving migrants £8,000 to come and work here.
He expanded on his ‘ability to negotiate’ with the EU having negotiated on the budget. He repeated his pledge to have an in/out referendum by the end of 2017 and said this would be non-negotiable should he enter into a coalition. However he did say he had seven days to fight for an absolute majority, something he is just 23 seats short of.
He did say he would ‘do the right thing for the country’ should he fall short of a majority.
The first question was based on the letter Cameron brandished earlier on: ‘How can we trust Labour with the economy?’
Miliband was quick to point out the global financial crisis (GFC) which caused a high deficit which hasn’t been cleared. He repeated his pledge to cut the deficit year-on-year through fairer taxes, reduced spending in non-protected areas and increasing living standards to increase tax revenues.
Dimbleby interjected, saying for six years prior to the GFC, Labour’s borrowing had been increased year-on-year. Miliband pointed back to the GFC and said that Labour had learnt their lesson and that they got it wrong on banking regulation.
Miliand pointed out he was the first Labour leader to call for spending cuts in public services. An audience member interjected and pointed out that Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls said the letter left by the Treasury Secretary was a joke and repeated the question of how Labour can be trusted with the economy.
Another audience member asked if Labour had overspent during their time in government. Miliband said that Labour hadn’t, which angered a few of the more vocal audience members.
Miliband argued they didn’t overspend because they invested in schools and hospitals, which wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Miliband also repeated his pledge to end Non-Dom statuses, something he said had been around for 200 years or 40 prime ministers.
On the GFC, one audience member argued that the likes of Australia and Canada hadn’t suffered, so was Labour still not to blame. Miliband rebutted by saying those nations weren’t as exposed. He argued that the UK had become too reliant on the financial sector and hadn’t built up other industries.
Another audience member put it to Miliband that if the deficit had been halved then it was clear Labour had overspent. Miliband returned by saying Cameron had made deep cuts and is planning double cuts in the next parliament. He said that he wasn’t arguing for no cuts but a balanced plan. He pledged there and then that he would not cut child benefits.
The next big topic area was that of a potential coalition with the Scottish Nationalists (SNP). Miliband ruled out not just a coalition or deal with the SNP but with any party. He said he was fighting for a majority and that he wouldn’t trade away parts of his manifesto.
He was then asked if he would rather not be in government if it meant forming a deal with the SNP. He said if it meant ‘we weren’t going to be in government then so be it’.
Straight away, Clegg was asked whether he could be trusted after his broken promise on tuition fees. Clegg admitted as he has previously that he got it wrong. He said as in life, we weren’t able to do what we wanted. He skirted past the point that Dimbleby made that he could have abstained from the vote.
He argued that there was no money left as pointed out in the letter Cameron had. He argued that the Lib Dems fought for the fairest deal possible. He pleaded with the public to look at the policies they had brought in: increased spending on education, raising the income tax-free earnings, shared parental leave and pension reform.
Clegg was asked if he would go into a coalition again. Clegg said he would, even if it came at a ‘short-term political cost’, adding that we shouldn’t undo all the work by lurching to the right with more cuts with the Tories or to the left with more spending. He argued they were going to anchor the parties in the centre.
Clegg was asked who he would make prime minister. Clegg said it would either be Cameron or Clegg but the question would be who would join them: Nigel Farage on the ideological right, the SNP on the ideological left, or himself in the centre.
On foodbank usage, Clegg said it was distressing to see people moving to foodbanks. He argued that every day in government he had always tried to take decisions to spread the burden. He pointed out that the Lib Dems brought three million people out of income tax.
On Europe and immigration Clegg pointed out that he had assisted the Tories in bringing legislation that would set out the criteria when a referendum would take place, and that is down to if more powers were to be sent to Brussels.
He argued that the Tories were confused about when they would hold a referendum and argued the case that in a globalised world where borderless threats are ever-present (such as climate change, terrorism and multinational corporation regulations), these threats were a lot easier to tackle together.
With regards to Trident, Clegg said he supported a renewal, but said the current set-up was dated for the Cold War and that we could reduce from a 24/7, 365-days-a-year patrol of the nuclear subs (which requires four submarines) and reduce it down to three subs instead. He said the threats weren’t coming from Russia but from terrorists.
An audience member argued that they were attacking because we were in their countries. Clegg gave his most popular answer of the night by saying there is no excuse or rationale for terrorists to kill our citizens, however added he would defend civil liberties in balance with keeping us safe.
Like others on social media, I was angered by Miliband’s arrogance when it came to coalition deals. It isn’t right to dismiss the will of the people.
I will give Clegg credit because back in 2010 he made the difficult choice to accept the will of the people and side with the biggest party in Westminster. Polls show that Ed can’t successfully maintain a government without the support either as a coalition with or on a vote-by-vote basis from the SNP. I think that was miscalculated. Miliband also took a hit when he refused to accept whether Labour had overspent whilst in government.
The audience gave no leader an easy ride. Cameron was attacked for his lack of details surrounding suspected benefit cuts. Cameron had a fair amount of energy and enthusiasm which filtered into the spin room. Clegg probably had the roughest ride from the start. One audience member said the Lib Dems would be irrelevant come next Friday.
This was by far the best event of the televised election schedule. Though the leaders didn’t face each other, the audience were allowed to apply their own pressure, occasionally backed up by Dimbleby fighting their corner. The leaders were sticking to the same lines, spun from their manifestos and other public appearances, so the audience was frustrated at times. The audience wasn’t satisfied with the ducking and diving of questions with well-rehearsed answers.
With six days to go, this election is far from over.