The real winners last night were Jeremy Paxman and Channel 4. Given the chance to do what he does best and forensically interview leading politicians, Paxman was at his best. Both times, it felt a shame that the interview had to come to an end when it did: Cameron’s because he was on the defensive and clearly wanted it over, Miliband’s because he’d come to life and was clearly ready for more.
Kay Burley was as terrible as you’d expect. Fawning over Cameron, then continually interjecting and interrupting when Miliband was on, she was poor as a moderator, and helped the sections with the audience feel very much like filler sections in between the two Paxman interviews.
No one won, but Miliband didn’t need to. The Tory message has been that Ed Miliband is barely capable of tying his own shoelaces while David Cameron is the strong and capable leader capable of negotiating our relationship with the EU. Neither of those look like good arguments after last night, and the danger of setting such low expectations for Miliband is that it’s very easy for him to overcome them.
‘Cameron scared of debates’ is still a story. One of the messages being repeated in a lot of the morning reporting is people asking why they couldn’t have a head to head debate, or wouldn’t it be good to see them having a head to head debate. Agreeing to some debates means people are still asking why he didn’t agree to the full set of them.
We need more in depth interviews in the campaign. The Paxman sections were the most interesting part of last night, and needed to be longer, and some of the more interesting political moments of the last few years have come in proper interviews – James O’Brien and Nigel Farage, Eddie Mair and Boris Johnson, for instance – and the campaign would benefit from a lot more of these and a lot less photo ops and press conferences. A tough, forensic interview of a senior politician, going on for half an hour or more, is a pretty rare event nowadays, and last night showed it could be much more effective than another Q&A with an audience.
Will the story of the election now be Cameron vs Miliband? Last night framed the election as two-way fight between them, and the post-debate coverage is barely mentioning the other parties. Will this framing persist and keep portraying the election as between the two big parties – and will this effect the polls? – or will the start of the campaign and next week’s seven-way debate open it all up again?