It wasn't a debate. That was what we were supposed to understand from the sight of the new Chiles 'n' Bleakley – Kay Burley and Jeremy Paxman – having 18-minute interviews then audience Q 'n' As with the two major party leaders.
Because David Cameron had gone all weird about doing debates, like a child who decides they will only eat white foods, we were subjected to a weirdly stilted format, and it was the basic not-a-debate-ness of the format that stuck out by a country mile. These two men were brought into the studio in separate cars, taken to separate green rooms, did the "non-debate" alone, then pissed off again without ever shaking hands. Why didn't they just have a debate? No one could quite say.
Still, even without debate, there were still clear winners and losers on a whole range of debating issues. Here are some of the key ones:
PREPAREDNESS: Cameron 2 – 2 Miliband
Each had been debate-coached to within an inch of their lives, with Ed reportedly hiring the guy who got Obama through the Romney debates. Cameron's performance felt like he'd had model answers bounced off him by some gym instructor simultaneously making him catch a medicine ball. If anything, they were both over-polished, but only Cameron so much that he seemed translucent.
SIGNATURE GESTURES: Cameron 1 – 1 Miliband
Cameron picked up on his "I am holding a big invisible watermelon at my waist" – both arms out, but low, fingers splayed and cocked inwards. Freudians would say he's trying to show us all what massive cojones he has. Jungians would say he is just being a bit silly.
For his part, Miliband did that weird thing where he sticks one hand in his pocket and then splays the fingers of the other while wafting it towards the person he's talking to. It's a gesture no one who ever did an honest day's work in their lives has ever used; it's like a gang sign for Harvard lecturers. What even is it?
LOLS: Cameron 0 – 0 Miliband, Paxman 4
Paxman to Cameron: "What do you have in common with all these very rich people?"
Paxman to Miliband: "You're answering a question you've made up yourself."
Yes, Paxman had all the lols.
BOOS: Cameron 0 – 0 Miliband
To deflect bias, the audience were whittled down by a survey company from 4,000 volunteers to 127, to make them "representative". A third were meant to be Labour, a third Tory sympathisers, and the rest undecideds.
Somehow it had turned out that these, the demographically-accurate people of Britain, were a meek and gentle lot who didn't want to boo their two subjects, instead listening thoughtfully to the tedious pat answers their leaders gave for the millionth time.
If nothing else, the pseudo-Question Time format made you realise the extent to which Question Time itself relies on a producer with a bottle of tequila and an electric cattle prod geeing-up the crowds beforehand by playing sub-bass frequencies at them in a holding pen for half an hour. QT crowds are ready to hiss – they've arrived there hoping to boo John Redwood or George Galloway, they've been dreaming about it.
This, on the other hand? Apart from the odd moments when they were telling Ed he was an ugly little cumstain with tits for cheeks, they were very flat. Booing didn't really come into it. Yes, it seems that the people of Britain don't have the base contempt for their leaders we'd all imagined. Yes, the people of Britain genuinely wanted to hear generic answers to vanilla questions. Yes, the people of Britain are idiots.
CHEERY SOFTBALL FAUX-SELF-CRITICISM: Cameron 1 – 2 Miliband
"Well maybe we'll have a bacon sandwich together," Ed said, asked whether he could have a drink with Dave. Some people even chortled at this. Michael McIntyre has sold a million DVDs, so it wasn't entirely unexpected. Then he said it again, three minutes later: "Well I'm not going to win contests on who looks best eating a bacon sandwich," thereby revealing that it was a staged line he'd had loaded in his arsenal all night, just waiting for a decent opportunity to deploy this fake humility, and – oh no – he'd panicked and used it twice.
Cameron, meanwhile, had to look inside his soul and say what he truly regretted about his first term. He thought about health reform, education, Syria and welfare, and lamented not putting an end to noisy PMQs. Yes, of all the policy decisions he's helmed, that was the one he couldn't look himself in the eye on every morning. I think Shakespeare wrote an early draft of Othello about that level of anguish.
PRACTISED REHASHING OF PARTY LINES:
Ah, the "difficult decisions" he was making. Yes, they were "tough", but "right for our country". Of course they were: they supported his "long term economic plan".
Got off to a cliche bingo blinder by immediately recycling his, "Britain can do better than this" wibble from his last couple of conference speeches. Also got stuck like a broken record on his favourite "I'm still thinking of an answer" verbal filler: "Let me just say this...", a stock phrase he must've pulled out of his hat ten times.
MAN OF THE PEOPLE SCHTICK: Cameron 1 - 3 Miliband
The moment he got up from Paxman's flogging, it became obvious why Cameron has survived beyond anyone's expectations. Talking right into the eyes of old ladies, "I will definitely consider it," remembering their names, weeping his strangely wooden folksy charm into the hearts of the crowd, like one of those statues of the Virgin Mary that cries blood. It was cyborg stuff, hyper-boring, but flawless. The audience couldn't lay a finger on him. Nor did they seem to want to, clearly having confused "UK Prime Minister" with "Great Leader Of The People's Republic Of China", serving up softball after endless softball by way of questions.
Ed, on the other hand, wanted to be a man of the people, but the people didn't seem so keen on letting him be one of them. He faced a range of tormentors, like Sunil, the man who asked Miliband whether he thought his brother would've done a better job. Like Paxman calling him a North London geek and following it up by telling him that some bloke on the tube thought he'd get beaten up by global bully Vlad Putin.
Even Kay Burley didn't want him to be one of the people. "Your poor mum," said Kay, after Ed had explained why he ran against his brother. Ed actually chose to dignify this with an answer ("It was very hard on her"). That is why Ed's judgement remains unsound. Double-standards were rife. No one asked David Cameron about his difficult relationship with his brother, even though DC murdered his brother with the jaw-bone of an ass when they were children.
Overall, despite being a millionaire Hampstead wonk, Ed is still the most MOTP, because deep down, the people know what it's like to look fruity and be bullied by an anally-retentive redhead and a pompous public schoolboy.
CROWBARRED ANECDOTES: Cameron 0 – 0 Miliband
In terms of contrived anecdotes crowbarred in to storify policy, we have moved on from the debates of 2010, when every party leader seemed to have met a black man in Plymouth, an Asian man in Hartlepool or an Amerindian in Gwent. The most "man of the people" bloke of all seemed to be Paxman, who had "met a man on the Tube" who said Miliband wouldn't be able to stand up to Putin.
ELEPHANT TRAPS: Cameron 0 – 1 Miliband
There was something super-sly in Ed praising Cameron for "gay marriage and a commitment to international aid": the two things that the voters Cameron was trying to woo back from UKIP actively hate him for.
DEALING WITH PAXMAN: Cameron 4 – 2 Miliband
Turns out Jeremy Paxman is very good at interviewing politicians, and many thought if he played his cards right, he could get a regular gig doing that sort of thing on BBC2 on weeknights.
Apparently Paxo and Miliband had adjacent holiday cottages in Greece not too long ago. If they glugged Ouzo and peeled off each other's sunburn there, it wasn't showing. Paxman was catty and personal, less an interviewer than a dyspeptic grandmother. Miliband, for his part, came across as defensive at certain points, rattled even. Paxman was doing the Full Metal Jacket, the proper hairdryer treatment, and fighting back was the only option, even if it meant that the whole spectacle became like watching a bar fight between two tubby fifty-something IT managers in a Slug & Lettuce. Unseemly grappling.
Cameron was far lighter on his feet. "I'm sure you're about to tell me, Jeremy," he said, when asked for some figure he probably should've known. Like being attacked by a bear in the woods, Cameron understood that whatever the damage, just playing dead with his facial expressions until the mauling passed would be his salvation. Don't look riled. Ed looked riled.
The polls: Cameron won 54 – 46 according to Guardian/ICM, and 51 – 49 according to YouGov.
On the other hand, for ordinary voters up and down the land who'd only clicked through to Channel 4 in the hope of catching My Fifty Stone Scrotum, the mere fact of the debate was happening at all meant that they'd been exposed to more Ed Miliband than in their entire lifetimes.
This was exactly why Cameron was against any debates: in terms of his own incumbency advantage and the pseudo-Presidential prestige that goes with it, he can only go backwards, while Little Tommy Knocknees Miliband can only benefit at this point from people knowing his name and seeing his face.
Miliband, by TKO.
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