- David Cameron, the prime minister and Conservative Party leader, asked voters to give him the chance to “finish the job” of turning the economy around.
- Nick Clegg, the leader of Cameron’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners, disputed his promise to stay the course, saying the Conservatives would lurch to the right on taxes and spending without his party.
- Labour’s Ed Miliband vowed that, if elected, he would take on the energy companies “that are ripping you off,” protect health and education spending and balance the books at the same time.
- The United Kingdom Independence Party’s Nigel Farage maintained that none of the other party leaders “understand the faults, hopes and aspirations of ordinary people.”
Seven party leaders are participating in tonight’s debate. Only Prime Minister David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, and Labour’s Ed Miliband stand a chance of leading the next government. But they will likely need the support from at least one of the other parties to find a majority.
For Labour, the most likely coalition partner is Nicola Sturgeon‘s Scottish National Party. It has ruled out supporting a government led by the Conservatives and said it could prop up a Labour government instead on an “issue-by-issue basis” in order to advance “progressive politics” across the United Kingdom.
The Scottish nationalists have dropped their demand that Britain’s nuclear submarines be removed from Faslane, a naval base west of Glasgow, but would likely still pull Labour to the left. They have criticized the coalition’s spending cuts, most of which Labour has vowed to keep in place, and want more powers for Scotland despite losing a referendum on independence last year.
Nigel Farage‘s United Kingdom Independence Party, by contrast, could pull the Conservatives to the right. It has called the spending cuts insufficient and wants Britain to leave the European Union — an ambition shared by some Tory rightwingers.
Under Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system, however, Farage’s party is unlikely to win more than a handful of seats despite polling around 15 percent support nationwide.
Nick Clegg‘s Liberal Democrats are a more likely coalition partner for Cameron. The two have ruled together for five years, surprising many British analysts unused to coalition government. The liberals want to slow down austerity but removed the main stumbling block to another coalition this week when they said they could accept a referendum on European Union membership.
Coalition government has proved unpopular with many liberal voters who have never forgiven Clegg for reneging on a pledge to keep down tuition fees. The party is projected to lose more than half its 56 seats in the House of Commons in May. That would still leave it the fourth-largest party, though.
Natalie Bennett‘s Greens and Leanne Wood‘s Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru are unlikely to win more than a handful of seats between them. Neither looks like a very credible governing partner.
The Greens are so far to the left, it is difficult to imagine even Miliband — who is seen as to the left of previous Labour leaders — forming a coalition with them.
Plaid Cymru is also leftist but its priority is independence for Wales. Its platform is comparable to that of the SNP.
The Financial Times reports that bookmakers think Nigel Farage has the best chance of winning the debate. According to William Hill, the UKIP leader is favored 13/8 to be voted winner in snap polls to be published immediately after the debate.
Daniel Berman, a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, isn’t so sure. He writes at his blog, The Restless Realist, that Farage’s position tonight is actually far from enviable.
With five other speakers attacking Cameron from the “left”, the prime minister will be earning plenty of rightwing credit simply by the actions of his enemies. In that context, it is highly likely that Farage’s efforts to claim Cameron is not really “conservative” will be lost and appear absurd
The debate is starting!
Party leaders will discuss four questions submitted by viewers and selected by ITV. Each leader will have one minute to respond before the topic is opened to eighteen minutes of debate. The order in which the politicians will speak has been determined by drawing lots. The Green Party’s Natalie Bennett goes first. David Cameron will be given the final word.
This is the only debate in which both Cameron and Miliband will participate. The BBC hosts another debate in two weeks’ time among the five junior party leaders that Miliband said last-minute he would also attend.
In his opening statement, Nick Clegg reiterated that only the Liberal Democrats can stop the Conservatives imposing “ideological” cuts and prevent Labour from borrowing too much.
David Cameron also made his core pitch: opposition parties were wrong, the “long-term economic plan” is working, Britain is growing and must stay the course. “Let’s not go back to square one,” he said.
Ed Miliband’s Britain looks very different. The last five years haven’t worked for working people, he said, while the National Health Service is failing. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Both Clegg and Cameron promised “balance” in the next government. The Liberal Democrat argued there should be a balance between the Conservatives’ cuts and Labour’s borrowing. The prime minister’s notion of balance was a bit vaguer. He called for two more years of reductions and ruled out tax increases.
Farage criticized the two leaders for not having cut deeply enough, pointing out that the national debt was still rising relative to gross domestic product.
Beyond cutting foreign aid and Britain’s £8 billion net yearly contribution to the European Union budget as a consequence of altogether leaving the bloc, however, it is unclear where Farage would cut to reduce the deficit faster while financing tax relief at the same time.
Clegg disputed Cameron’s claim that the Conservatives would “stay the course.” Rather, he said, the prime minister would lurch to the right to cut spending without raising taxes on the rich.
Cameron insisted he was taxing the rich by clamping down on tax evasion but he quickly shifted the debate to Labour which he said hadn’t lived up to its mistakes. Miliband accused both ruling parties of scaremongering and risking the NHS.
Sturgeon intervened to argue for spending increases. Farage rejected that, saying Britain had “maxed out the credit cards” and needed to make more significant savings.
Miliband argued there was no point in talking about the past. What matters now, he said, is: “Are we going to have common-sense reductions in spending or slash-and-burn?”
It’s little wonder the Labour leader would rather discuss the future because Cameron is basically right — they left the country with a deficit equal to 11 percent of gross domestic product in 2010. It’s down to 5 percent this year.
Farage stuck an English nationalist tone, complaining that English taxpayers’ money was sent “over Hadrian’s Wall” to finance free higher education in Scotland while universities in English and Wales can charge their students up to £9,000 in fees per year.
Perhaps predictably, all party leaders promised they would protect the National Health Service. Despite its many failures, the free-of-charge health system is extremely popular with the British public.
Farage nevertheless called for reductions in management and overhead. Sturgeon praised Scotland’s model where there have been no attempts at liberalizations whatsoever. So did the Greens’ Natalie Bennett who said “the whole market mechanism” should be taken out of the system. Leanne Wood said health care should be protected from both privatization and centralization.
Clegg was a bit more realistic, pointing out that the NHS is falling £8 billion short. His solution? Tax the rich.
Miliband also recognized the NHS needed more money and, like Clegg, would raise taxes rather than control spending. He suggested higher taxes on expensive homes and higher taxes for tobacco companies.
Cameron defended his record, pointing out that health spending has risen every year since he took power. The only party that ever cut the NHS, he said, was Labour in Wales. “So when you hear Ed Miliband’s promises, think about that.”
Natalie Bennett’s warnings of an “American-style” health care system are completely overblown. “It is simply not true” that there has been a massive privatization effort in health care, said Clegg, and he’s right. The percentage of care done by contractors has risen from 4 to 6 percent, he pointed out.
According to the Department of Health, spending on private providers has also barely risen — from 4.9 percent of total spending when Labour was last in power to 5.9 percent last year.
Farage bordered on the xenophobic, saying, “We’ve got to put our own people first,” when talking about treating patients.
Miliband said he had changed his party’s approach on immigration, promising Labour would strengthen controls and stop employers “undercutting” wages by bringing in migrant workers.
Farage argued the issue wasn’t benefits but numbers. The influx of workers from former East Bloc states has depressed wages, he said, and created a crisis in housing.
Cameron tried to balanced approach, saying Britain needs immigrants but less of them. He proposed to stop labor migrants getting unemployment benefits for at least four years. “Those are fair changes I can deliver,” he said.
Clegg also cautioned against benefits abuse but emphasized the need for people coming in. “If we turned everybody away, the NHS would collapse overnight,” he said.
The Greens and Scottish nationalists were very defensive of immigration which could have implications for policy if Miliband wins the election. If Labour falls short of an outright majority, which is likely, it would probably need one of those two parties to keep it in power and they are clearly not interested in reducing the number of people coming into the United Kingdom.
For once, Cameron talked about his education reforms. The Conservatives have — curiously — avoided talking about their reforms which allow charities and communities to set up schools that are state-funded but relatively free to design their own programs.
Miliband criticized these so-called free schools because they employ what he called “unqualified teachers.”
It’s probably no coincidence that teachers’ unions, which support Labour, have opposed the government’s reforms because they weaken their power.
The BBC notes that Miliband was correct there are some 17,000 unqualified teachers in British schools.
But it’s worth mentioning that that was a typical number under the last Labour government too.
In his closing remarks, Miliband said the Conservative-led government was not on working people’s side. If he is elected prime minister, Miliband said, he would take on the energy companies “that are ripping you off,” protect health and education spending and balance the books at the same time.
Farage said all the other party leaders were the same. “They don’t understand the faults, hopes and aspirations of ordinary people.”
Cameron stuck to his mantra: Give the Conservatives the chance to “finish the job” of turning the economy around.
I doubt this will be the consensus view, but it seems to me Nick Clegg came out the strongest from this debate.
His basic pitch to voters — that the Liberal Democrats can rein in the Conservatives’ as well as Labour’s worst instincts — is pretty transparent. But he seemed confident and relaxed and was honest about the challenges the next government will face. The NHS is running out of money and while there won’t be sweeping privatization, some liberalization can help curtail costs without sacrificing quality. (Indeed, research has shown that surgery patients from privately-run health facilities are healthier and experience less severe recovery conditions than patients undergoing the same procedures in NHS hospitals.) Clegg apologized once again for reneging on his 2010 pledge not to raise tuition fees but argued Labour had left the public finances in such a poor state there was no alternative.
Clegg took Miliband to task for crashing the economy, forcing the Labour leader to concede his party had failed to properly regulate the banks. And his position on immigration was the most sensible. Britain needs workers from other countries but also needs benefits reform to stop newcomers going on unemployment the moment they arrive.
The Guardian‘s Andrew Sparrow argues that none of the leaders really made much of a breakthrough.
Cameron looked like a man playing for a draw which is more or less what he got. Miliband had some very polished moments which may encourage the revaluation of his image that was already under way since his Paxman encounter.
Miliband was widely seen to have exceeded expectations in his interview with Jeremy Paxman last week when he said he didn’t care if voters thought he was a “north London geek” and argued that his opposition to what could have been an American-led military intervention in Syria in 2013 proved he was “tough enough” to lead the world’s sixth-largest economy.
The Telegraph‘s Janet Daley agrees that Clegg was often more effective than David Cameron in defending the coalitions’ record — “not because his arguments were stronger but because his presentation was so much more forceful.”
The right-wing newspaper’s James Kirkup says Cameron successfully overcame some opening nerves “to stick to his plan: rise above it and look like the only viable prime minister in a crowd of political pygmies.”
Dan Hodges believes the two nationalist party leaders, Sturgeon and Wood, did better. That might not have a big national impact but it could give the SNP and Plaid Cymru a boost in Scotland and Wales.
That’s potentially bad news for Labour and I suspect Ed Miliband will be seriously reassessing his decision to agree to a further debate with Sturgeon and Wood later in the campaign.
The SNP is projected to win as many as 55 out of 59 seats in Scotland, 41 of which are currently held by Labour. If the nationalists weren’t so popular north of the border, Miliband would probably be able to win a majority on his own.
According to the Daily Mail, a right-wing tabloid, Miliband “fell flat.” The Labour leader’s hopes of using the debate to “catapult” him into 10 Downing Street “floundered,” it writes, “as he was overshadowed by David Cameron, Nicola Sturgeon and Nigel Farage.”
The Daily Mirror, a Labour-leaning tabloid, takes the opposite view, arguing that Cameron was “pummelled as the other party leaders turned on him over the NHS and the economy.”