Here we have the first televised event of the General Election. Not as originally proposed – a head-to-head between Prime Minister David Cameron and leader of the opposition Ed Miliband – but an interview followed up by an audience question and answer session.
The two party leaders didn’t even share the stage at the same time, in what could be perceived as a middle finger to the democratic process, denying the electorate the right to these pre–election debates.
Left wing journalist Owen Jones said, ‘The expectations for Miliband (were) so low that if he doesn’t turn up and start rocking in the foetal position he will be considered to have outperformed expectations.’
The pre-interview spin room was filled with questions of whether Miliband would be able to communicate the issues at hand effectively, to rebuttals that if Cameron was so proud of his record he should be ready to defend it in a debate.
Jeremy Paxman quizzed both candidates and as ever didn’t give anyone an easy time, interrupting the candidates and asking the same question numerous times in a short space of time.
David Cameron was first up.
Straight away Paxman was on the attack as he so often is with politicians, asking about foodbanks. Cameron didn’t know foodbanks had increased from 66 to 421, however he dismissed this as a sign of ‘Broken Britain’ which he came in to fix. Cameron pointed out that Job Centres were not allowed to advertise food banks before his government. Paxman asked if the increase in foodbanks were acceptable, and Cameron unsurprisingly swerved the question.
On zero-hour contracts, Cameron admitted 1 in 50 jobs were zero-hour contracts. Paxman asked if Cameron could live on a zero-hour contract and, again, the PM tried to swerve the question. However, he did later concede that he couldn’t live on one. Cameron argued they were beneficial for student and he had made it illegal to ask people to sign zero hour contracts with exclusivity clauses which would prevent them from working for multiple employers.
On immigration, Paxman put it to Cameron that his government had failed on its ‘no ifs, no buts’ promise to reduce immigration. Cameron’s reply was that immigration figures were high because of the successful economy that Britain had, however he conceded they needed to tackle European immigration.
Paxman asked Cameron about the £12bn in welfare cuts that were as yet unexplained. Cameron replied with his policy to freeze in-work and unemployment benefits. Paxman argued that £10bn was still unaccounted for. Paxman asked if it was the case that he knew and wasn’t telling us where the cuts would come from or whether he ‘really didn’t know’. Cameron followed up by saying it would be financed by the savings made from a £26,000 household cap on benefits.
One figure that Cameron did state was that the next government would need to save £1 in every £100 per department, a saving he argued could be made, as in the current government they had saved £20bn and there was room for another £10bn in the next government.
Cameron moved on to say he was proud to cut the EU budget and get the UK out of the Euro bailout scheme, further adding that the EU wasn’t working properly. Cameron made it clear he wants this renegotiation in order to give the public a proper choice in an in/out referendum on the EU.
Predictably, Cameron was asked about his ‘no third term’ comment over the weekend. Paxman asked whether voting for Cameron was a vote for either Boris Johnson or Theresa May in two or three years. Cameron responded by saying it was an honest answer to a question and that he would serve every day of his second term.
Then with the second part of the interview, Cameron faced the public. The first question asked was, ‘What are Ed Miliband’s best qualities?’ Apart from a brief mention of serving the public and being passionate in disagreements, this question (like so many others) was swerved.
Cameron was asked if he would appoint a cabinet minister for older people. The PM gave a good answer: he wants every minister to think about older people and how they can assist rather than putting that focus on one individual.
Cameron was asked if he would reverse the decision to apply cuts to the police budget. Cameron’s response was that with a 20% reduction in budget, crime rates had still fallen, as through efficiencies they had prioritised policing on the ground with civilians doing the bureaucratic work – and he said there are further efficiencies to be made.
On to Ed Miliband. He firstly faced the audience, and with some energy he met every question. He became almost obsessed with knowing the name of the person asking the question.
His first question was, ‘You always sound gloomy, are things really that bad?’ A quick ‘No’ was followed by ‘But they could be a lot better.’
Miliband on two occasions said Labour were not socialists but that their card said social democrats. He had a focus on everyone working together to reduce inequalities and share the wealth.
Miliband was asked what the budget deficit would be by the end of the next parliament. No numerical answer was given, which didn’t help Miliband win the argument that Labour is soft on the numbers. However, he did say any Labour government would be inheriting a £75bn deficit. He went on to add that they would create fairer taxes, that they would reverse tax rates on those earning over £150,000, and that they would aim to increase living standards in order to increase tax revenue.
Miliband was also asked what he thought Cameron’s best qualities were. To his credit, he answered honestly, unlike the PM. He cited Cameron’s commitment to equal marriage and his commitment to the overseas aid budget. Both, he said, were difficult to deal with within his party but the right thing to do.
Inevitably Miliband was asked personal questions. One on image, to which he replied, ‘I’m not going to win a contest for eating a bacon sandwich,’ and added that ideals, principles and decency matter.
One person asked if he thought his brother David would have done a better job. Miliband said ‘no’, but added that the contest for leadership against his brother was difficult and bruising.
Miliband then faced questions from Paxman, firstly starting with immigration. Miliband was asked if Britain was too full. Miliband stated he would not make any numerical pledges as Cameron had done. When probed with hypotheticals Miliband refused to answer, and ended with his pledge to reduce low-skilled migration and to stop the undercutting of the minimum wage.
Paxman on several occasions accused Miliband of making up his own questions to answer.
Paxman asked if Labour had borrowed too much under the previous government. Miliband responded that the global financial crisis forced the increase in borrowing. Paxman followed this up by asking if the previous Labour government had spent too much. Miliband answered that the financial crisis wasn’t caused by Labour overspending.
Miliband’s economic forecasts for the current parliament were challenged too. As Paxman put it simple: ‘You were wrong.’ Unemployment has fallen, as has inflation, while incomes have slowly risen. Miliband argued that people were £1,600 worse off, despite these income rises, and that the unemployment predictions he cited were from the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR).
Miliband said he was not denying the need for spending cuts, however said essential services would not face cuts, to which Paxman accused him of using ‘weasel words’.
Miliband was quizzed on what he would give Alex Salmond, the former leader of the SNP, in order to form a Westminster alliance. Miliband aggresively denied that he would offer Salmond anything, and that he would not enter into a bargaining game. Paxman pointed out that he might not have a choice. Miliband dismissed this, saying he was fighting for a majority.
On that point Paxman asked, ‘How is it that you’re less popular than your party?’ Miliband aggresively defended himself once again, saying he didn’t care what the press said about him but that he was committed to the British people and cared about what happened to them.
He was then asked if he felt his image made him look weak. Miliband said that when he was asked to vote in favour of action in Syria, he not only stood up to Cameron and Clegg but to the ‘leader of the free world’ in President Obama. He added that he was a pretty resilient guy.
All in all, though the format would not be what I would choose, this first TV event for #GE2015 will give the pundits plenty to talk about.
In my opinion, Cameron sounded rehearsed in his questions with Paxman, and also avoided quite a few. Cameron sounded like a spin doctor until the Q&A session with the audience, where he seemed more relaxed and was engaging, bringing in his own experience when quizzed on the NHS.
Miliband was not brilliant with his Q&A session, almost as if he’d been told to laugh at any question relating to his image or his brother. Granted, I question the relevance of these questions to a certain extent, but his reaction did seem forced. Where his passion shone through was when he faced Paxman. He didn’t shy away from the questions. He was passionate in his answers, however did seem a tad aggressive at times (a change, then, from his usual image). Paxman did call him out on his habit of posing questions to himself to then answer instead of answering the question posed by Paxman.
Who did I think ‘won’? Well, I would say the result was one-all. Miliband won in his questions from Paxman and Cameron won in his questions with the audience. Miliband wins for the surprise factor in his performance, but as said at the beginning, the bar was set pretty low.
The real test will come next week in the multi-leader debate on ITV. The standard has been set for Miliband and Cameron. They now need to keep up if not improve their performance.