BBC leaders debate: So which opposition leader scored the most points and ended up all right on the night?

Oliver Wright gives his verdict on the performances of Ed Miliband, Nigel Farage, Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and Nathalie Bennett

Oliver Wright
Friday 17 April 2015 11:06 BST
The five leaders debate became heated over the issue of the NHS
The five leaders debate became heated over the issue of the NHS (Getty)

Ed Miliband (Labour)

What he said “There’s one fundamental choice ... Do we carry on with the Conservative plan that says we put the richest and the most powerful first? David Cameron refused to come and debate tonight, but I’ve got a message for him. David, if you think this election is about leadership, then debate me one on one.

Ed Miliband looked straight down the camera and demanded the Prime Minister debate him 'one on one'
Ed Miliband looked straight down the camera and demanded the Prime Minister debate him 'one on one' (Getty)

“We’ve got to live within our means as a country. That’s why our plan will cut the deficit every year and balance the books, but we’ll do it in a different way to David Cameron. Our policy is to have fair taxes, to reverse David Cameron’s tax cut to millionaires which has given every millionaire in Britain £43,000 a year.”

How he did Miliband was clearly told to talk to the camera (and the audience at home) rather than to the people in the hall when answering opening questions. But because none of the other leaders did this it looked odd and confected. In the “open debate” he had the difficult job of defending Labour against a combined anti-austerity pincer movement of Sturgeon, Wood and Bennett. At times he was convincing – but at other points his opponents (and in particular Nicola Sturgeon) got the better of him. This was most obvious at the end on the question about a hung parliament. Miliband failed to land a killer argument to persuade Labour voters to return to the fold in Scotland.

Nicola Sturgeon (SNP)

What she said [To Ed Miliband in event of a hung parliament:] “We have a chance to kick David Cameron out of Downing Street. Don’t turn your back on it, people will never forgive you. The truth is no one person looks likely to win an outright majority. That means we will build bridges between different parties. A vote for the SNP is a vote to make Scotland’s voice heard but ours will also be a voice for new, better, progressive policies.”

How she did Another confident performance from Sturgeon – again showing why the SNP is such a formidable force in Scotland. She attacked Miliband from the left but managed to sound pragmatic and reasonable. She was particularly strong when it came to the final question of what would happen in a hung parliament. She managed to turn Labour’s strongest card (that a vote for the SNP would bring in the Tories) on its head. Surely, she asked Miliband, it was better to work with her in a hung parliament than allow the Tories to take power by default. Miliband’s response was wanting.

Nigel Farage (Ukip)

At least one member of the audience agreed with Nigel Farage over 'left-wing bias' of the BBC

What he said “I’m patriotic, I believe in this country and I believe in the people of this country. I believe we would be so much better off if we governed ourselves, controlled our borders. I’ll fight for the little man, for the little woman. This is a chance for the most radical political change for decades...

“[This is] a remarkable audience even by the left-wing standards of the BBC.” Presenter David Dimbleby replied: “This audience was carefully chosen by an independent polling organisation to represent the balance between all parties.”

How he did Thirty minutes in and Farage decided to entirely alienate the studio audience by suggesting they were all left wing. But for the Ukip leader this debate was not about stroking the audience in the hall but trying to consolidate his core vote sitting at home and wondering whether to stick with his party or switch to the Tories. In this aim, as the only right-wing candidate present, Farage had a slightly easier ride because the SNP, Plaid and the Greens were more interested in attacking Labour – because they know potential Ukip supporters would never consider voting for them. But, that said, up against a left-wing opposition Farage sounded more extreme than he did in the seven-way debate and in particular his statements on immigrants and the NHS came across as the worst kind of “dog-whistle” politics.

Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru)

What she said “People are seeing through the austerity myth... Cuts are a choice; austerity and the old politics are not inevitable.”

To Mr Farage “You abuse immigrants and those with HIV, and then complain that you get abuse.”

How she did Very much the junior partner in the SNP/Green/Plaid axis Wood came across as likeable but was overshadowed by Sturgeon at every stage. That said she came out with the best, if only, joke of the evening when she told the audience that she disagreed with her opponent (Mr Farage) on her far right. This debate though will undoubtedly help Plaid in Wales – if only because of the exposure and allowing Welsh voters to see one candidate on the stage whose interests are theirs alone.

Natalie Bennett (Green)

What she said “Don’t believe the advocates of spiteful austerity. This is the world’s sixth-richest country.”

On Farage “I am an immigrant. I loved the British way of life ... and I decided to stay and make this my home. There’s someone here on this platform who wants to utterly demonise immigrants. I want to celebrate them.”

How she did Perhaps finally realising that she’s not the Green’s greatest electoral asset Bennett began by asking voters to return more MPs like Caroline Lucas. She scored a couple of hits against Miliband and was clearly well-prepared with facts. However for a politician who is essentially selling an optimistic vision of socialist, environmentally friendly Britain she comes across as too much of a street scrapper to reap much of a dividend. I suspect many Greens are rueing the day they decided to effectively split power between Lucas and Bennett.

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