Two and a half weeks in, three weeks to go and it feels to me that we might have had the first big moment of the election tonight. There’d been a lot of pre-event discounting of tonight’s debate: Farage was guaranteed to win as the only right-wing voice, everyone would gang up on Miliband, Cameron would look good for staying out of the fray and much more. Instead, it felt like everyone had made a similar calculation: why go for Miliband when he’s there and can fight back when you could take as many free hits at David Cameron as you wanted?
Sure, Miliband had a few clashes with the others but note how many of those were based on ‘if you were Prime Minister’-style questions and except for the clash at the end with Nicola Sturgeon, how he responded pretty well to them all. He got to stand there, look calm, collected, human and Prime Ministerial while David Cameron sat at home, probably gritting his teeth more and more as the night went on. The polling bears it out too – Miliband seems not only to have ‘won’ the debate, but amongst people who watched the debate appears to have edged ahead of Cameron on the preferred Prime Minister question.
The Tory strategy, which seems to have imagined that Ed Miliband would do what he hasn’t done for the past four or more years and fall apart under pressure, is looking worse and worse every day. I mean, Ed Miliband might suddenly collapse into a gibbering wreck in an interview tomorrow, but it’s seeming increasingly unlikely, and probably less likely than the rage that seems to seethe under David Cameron whenever anyone criticises him finally bursting to the surface.
Of course, we now need to see what gets picked up and played on more over the next few days. So far, there seems to be a rather muted response to Miliband’s request to Cameron for a head-to-head debate, but Labour could keep the pressure up on that, as they likely know there’s no way it could actually happen, even if Cameron were to say yes. There’s also the question of how Farage blowing up and insulting the audience is going to be taken up, because it was a moment where he looked like he’d finally realised that he wasn’t speaking for the majority and instead looked like the pub bore challenging someone to a fight. Still, we now know what two hundred people simultaneously having a sharp intake of breath sounds like.
I’ll probably look back on this in three weeks time and wonder ‘what was I thinking?’ but things seem to have become interesting at last. That probably means we’ll see everything derailed by ridiculous tabloid claims over the weekend, but for now things might just have taken flight.