The image that lingers on in the mind is Ed Miliband declaring, “Hell, yes, I’m tough enough,” putting on his best “tough enough” face. It was towards the end of the gruelling last 18 minutes of the great television non-debate.
Seconds later, he pronounced that his strategy for overcoming a poor public image is “be yourself”.
This presumably was the Labour leader being himself, a glimpse perhaps of the home life of the Milibands. “Do you want breakfast in the big kitchen where we can sit down, or can you manage standing in the spartan kitchenette one?” asks Justine. “Hell, yes, the upstairs one – I’m tough enough!”
He was the one who went into the bear pit with nothing to lose. David Cameron is an accomplished performer. He was expected to hold his own, even against Jeremy Paxman and certainly in front of a television audience.
Miliband was the one who – as he put it – is “not going to win contests on who looks best eating a bacon sandwich”.
Cameron seemed to expect a relaxed conversation and was plainly put out by Paxman’s opening question: “David Cameron, do you know how many food banks there were when you came to power in this country?”
He did not know, of course, though he knew their number had gone up. He was so knocked off balance that it took him a full minute to fall back on a formula that never fails.
It is the old Labour government’s fault that there are more food banks than there were under Labour – because in those days, job centres did not advertise the existence of food banks. Simple really. There is not anything that you cannot blame on the Labour government if you try hard enough.
Miliband, meanwhile was clearly expecting trouble and spent much of the interview trying to find a way to cope with it without sounding cross or whining.
“We got it wrong,” he said, more than once, hoping to duck an argument about the record of the previous Labour government. His best line was when he told his interviewer: “You’re important, Jeremy, but not that important.”
Others can argue over whether Dave did better than Ed, or Ed did better than Dave. The first Sky poll awarded it to Cameron, by 54 to 46, while in the spin room, the hacks mostly gave it to Miliband. Either we are out of touch, or the public are just not willing to look past a geeky exterior. At least both got through the ordeal without dropping a major gaffe, in a contest in which we learnt very little and which probably changed no one’s mind.
The night’s winner was, indisputably, Jeremy Paxman, He may have shown signs of fatigue in his last days of Newsnight, but here he was on vintage form. How we have missed that sneer in the question, the folded arms, and the raised eyebrow which says “Do you really expect us to believe this?”
Before it all began, Sky’s veteran anchorman Adam Boulton was parked in front of a camera conducting interviews, until he either ran out of guests or itchy feet got the better of him and he would set off, pursued by a camera, to find some other interviewee among the horde of journalists, bloggers, spin doctors and others hanging about waiting for it to begin.
If he was looking for famous faces, he was in for a disappointment. William Hague was in the building, but nowhere that would bring him into contact with journalists. Though afterwards he did his duty, turning with a bland smile to pronounce Cameron the night’s winner. He was followed by Labour’s Douglas Alexander, who dutifully awarded the night’s honours to Ed Miliband.
The only political celebrity to grace the spin room before it all began – and the first to reappear afterwards – was Nigel Farage. He arrived armed with two observations – one, that this event was not a debate, which we all knew, and two – news to most of us – “there is a good bar upstairs.” And upstairs he went.
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