Leaders’ Question Time: Who Kept Their Balance?

David Cameron emerges narrowly ahead as the party leaders do battle one last time

In the run-up to Labour’s landslide victory in 1997, the Lib Dem politician Roy Jenkins famously compared Tony Blair to a man carrying a Ming vase across a polished floor. Yesterday, the three main party leaders faced a similar challenge when they each took questions from voters on the BBC’s Question Time programme.  Who would make it across safely, and who would see their dreams of government smashed to pieces?

First into the lion’s den was David Cameron, fresh from a week on the campaign trail in which he has displayed an unusual amount of vigour. The Prime Minister kept up the pace during his grilling, passionately defending his commitment to the NHS and again waving Liam Byrne’s now-infamous letter when skewering Labour on the deficit. But he was unable to convince the audience about his intentions on benefits, something looming as a big issue for the Tories in the final week of the election.

Next up came Ed Miliband, looking to answer lingering doubts about his ability to govern. The expectations were greater for the Labour leader after three strong debate showings, and he struggled to hit the highs he had before. Miliband looked strong when ruling out a formal deal with the SNP, a move which signals Labour will not barter with the nationalists if governing from the minority after next Thursday. But he came under pressure on Labour’s borrowing record, where he lacked a killer response to the charge his party had overspent. 

Why did Miliband stumble here? It wasn’t for lack of preparation. The Labour Party has been split on whether it overspent immediately before the financial crisis, something Miliband has kept under wraps as leader. The more sophisticated response – that Labour should have built its fiscal house on more than city tax receipts – is one Miliband would probably like to make, but would require him to advocate more direct taxation to pay for public services. Like his mentor Gordon Brown, the Labour leader has been nervous of putting that proposition to voters.

Someone who wasn’t afraid to throw caution to the wind last night was the third of the main party leaders, Nick Clegg. Perhaps demob happy at polls showing him at risk of losing his seat, the Deputy Prime Minister shrugged off taunts he was on the verge of being out his job and came out swinging against the Conservatives on welfare spending. Clegg was less impressive when talking about Europe and faced criticism for his claims on tuition fees. However, a poll afterwards suggested he had beaten expectations.

So at the end of the fourth and final round, the Prime Minister’s prospects look a little rosier and his main rival’s a little gloomier. Polls before the debate showed the Tories moving into pole position, and a narrow win for Cameron may cement that perception. But with an electorate more fractured, more uncertain and more cynical than ever before, the PM still has a way to go before he can put that vase on the mantelpiece.  

Photograph: David Cameron


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