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March 29th 2015
We are only a few weeks away from the 2015 General Election now, and, just like I did 5 years ago, I will be live-blogging on this page throughout election night. Unlike last time, though, I've taken the next day off work, so I won't repeat my embarrassingly late arrival at the office (10.25am) and all-day yawning session. Well, I might yawn all day. But from the comfort of my own home. Anyhow, this is an early invitation to join me that evening (remotely or, I guess, in person if you really want) if you like your political analysis unpolished and baked full of contrived puns; all submission welcome on the night if you want your own views immortalised on a blog read by literally some people. See my entry here on May 6th/7th 2010 for what it was like last time round.
Anyway, the first big date of the election season came on Thursday night as David Cameron and Ed Miliband were interviewed by Jeremy Paxman and faced questions from a studio audience, in a programme snappily called "Cameron & Miliband Live: The Battle for No. 10" (you can watch it on demand if you missed it on the night). In the first of what may - but almost certainly won't - be a series of pre-election blog posts, allow me to turn my attentions to said programme, in what you could term 'political analysis' if you were feeling of a generous spirit.

The first thing to say about the programme is that it shouldn't really have happened at all; at least, not in this format. Instead, we should have been given a two-way debate between Cameron and Miliband, but unfortunately our Prime Minister wasn't prepared to do that, so we were left with this half-way house. I can understand Cameron's reasons (or, rather, those of Lynton Crosby) for not taking on Ed in a head-to-head: they're mostly the same reasons that Tony Blair had, namely that debates are harder for the incumbent (politicians, as the man said, campaign in poetry but govern in prose), and also that the front-runner has more to lose in such a situation than the challenger. Cameron is the front-runner, even if his party is not necessarily, with approval ratings that are, er, barely negative; Ed, on the other hand, remains less popular than stubbing your toe. Which is the other reason that Cameron wanted to avoid a head-to-head debate: while viewers' immediate reaction to Ed is that he is weird, that view might be tempered if they actually listened to him for a while. I mean, he'd probably rise at least to the level of 'dull'.
Anyhow, even though I understand Cameron's point of view, it shows a disappointing arrogance that he refused to take part in a head-to-head debate, not least because it was only a few months ago that he said that a debate between the two potential Prime Ministers was one of only two sensible debates to have, the other being a massive free-for-all which, unfortunately, actually has made it onto the calendar. If you want to hear the SNP and Plaid Cymru battle it out, this might be your only chance. I don't think anyone was buying his arguments as he wandered the Commons wailing "Won't anyone think of the DUP?" but I guess this watered-down version was better than nothing.
The night kicked off with Jeremy Paxman grilling David Cameron for 18 minutes (a duration chosen so as to allow time for adverts, I guess), and it reminded me just how annoying Paxman is as an interviewer; rather than trying to get useful information, thoughts or opinions from his interviewees, his only intention seems to be to trip them up (and, if he manages to put the spotlight onto one J. Paxman while he's doing it, he won't be complaining). His style is one that made Newsnight unwatchable, and the greatest joy of the forthcoming election coverage on BBC is that Paxman isn't going to be in it. While Paxman didn't descend as low on Thursday night as he has done before - greeting George Galloway's election victory with the line "Are you proud of having got rid of the one of the very few black women in parliament?" may be his personal nadir - it is long past time that he was put out to pasture. Having said that, his 18 minutes with Cameron was fairly tame, the highlight of sorts being that he 'got' Cameron to admit that he wouldn't want to have a zero hours contract - that, at least, was what led the headlines the following morning - but the question was not really a sensible one. Cameron's response was that zero hours contracts are useful for some, including students, and that under this government there have been 1,000 new jobs created per day, of which only 2% have been zero hours contracts; a strong riposte, I think, but one that was not delivered particularly emphatically. And, to be honest, I can't really remember anything else from that interview. Cameron played it with a straight bat, cautiously but in an attitude of reasonableness rather than the 'Flashman' persona he sometimes adopts, and the segment was notably devoid of audience laughter, applause or even murmur. I think someone coughed at one point.

From there it was studio audience time, and I couldn't help but notice that the questions were much more sensible than the ones you get from a Question Time audience, with hyperbole at a minimum and the majority of questioners actually interested in what Cameron might have to say. He dealt well with the audience, answering questions smoothly but also showing a humanness that is often missing when politicians engage with the public; perhaps it is an act honed during his days in PR, or perhaps he was just glad to be rid of Paxman, but I think he might have picked up one or two new Tory voters in that segment. At one point Cameron spoke about his son, Ivan, who was born severely disabled and who died at the age of six in 2009. I feel for Cameron at times like that, because his detractors have been known to claim that he uses his son for political gain, but quite simply this devastating experience is a key reason why Cameron has a deep respect and a genuine love for the NHS. So, when he is accused of trying to dismantle or undermine it - or, indeed, when he is accused of stigmatising disabled people - he can offer no better refutation than his own personal experience.
I think the weakest moment for Cameron came when he was asked what, looking back over the last five years, he would have done differently; a text-book question and one he should have been prepared for. After burbling a bit about how he should be nicer at PMQs, he decided that his biggest mistake was that all the good things he'd done - and he helpfully provided a list - could have been done a bit earlier. As a way of side-stepping the question, it was a bit obvious, and a classic example of his generally cautious approach to the evening.
When we got back from the advert break, it was Ed's turn to take questions from the audience, and although said audience were specifically picked to be evenly balanced across Labour & Conservative (even the undecideds were split 50:50 based on their voting history), some of the questions seemed a bit nastier for Ed: the first was "Why are you so gloomy?", and the general theme was more personal than the questions Cameron had faced. Ed is not so good a speaker as Cameron, but if viewers had tuned in expecting a weird-fest then they would have been disappointed by his pretty competent performance - and the fact that he got the odd round of applause. He even went for a bit of humour, twice bringing up his famed bacon sandwich escapades - he would have done better not to repeat the gag, as it got zero audience response the second time round - in contrast to Cameron, who barely cracked a smile during his session, laughing only when asked if there was anything he liked about his opposite number. Curiously, Ed seemed to address a few of his answers to co-host Kay Burley rather than to the audience, which didn't play brilliantly for the cameras, but if he thought that this would win him favour with Burley then he was sorely mistaken. She was much more savage with him than she had been with the Prime Minister, describing one of his answers (unfairly, in my view) as a "politician's response" and dwelling on the friction with his brother for longer than was needed; in comparison, the worst she had done with Cameron was cut him short when he'd turned an answer to a question about disability into one about the Tories' long-term economic plan. In fact, she had soft-balled Cameron by asking him at the end if he had ever had three shredded wheat, inviting a comedic response but instead getting: "I have actually, but, er, but, er, that was a long time ago".
I know that some - including my good friend and recent Green convert, Ben, who tweeted a suggestion that Burley was a 'Murdoch puppet' - have viewed her as betraying favouritism for Cameron. Personally I think that, while it was a poor performance from Burley, the truth is more prosaic: it is more likely that she had a producer in her ear telling her that she had been too easy on Cameron and needed to up the tension a bit, and we would probably have seen the same escalation if Ed (having won the coin toss; this coin apparently being a 20p provided by a Labour aide and not reclaimed afterwards) had elected to go first instead.

If Ed had reason to complain about his treatment from Burley, things were about to get worse with Paxman, who absolutely clobbered him for the first twelve minutes or so. Again, Paxman was more interested in the clobbering than in the questions, maintaining the rather ridiculous position that Ed had to give an exact number for how many people should live in Britain, and generally treating the Labour leader with even more contempt than usual. It has to be said, though, that Ed didn't handle it well at all, slumping in his seat and generally giving the impression that he didn't want to be there - not helped by the fact that chunks of the audience laughed along when invited to do so by Paxman. At this point, it seemed to me, we were dangerously close to car crash television, but then something snapped. Having run through a list of Alex Salmond's more optimistic demands, Paxman insisted that Ed needed the SNP if Labour were going to form a government, and Ed decided not to take it lying down. "Don't be so presumptuous! [...] You don't get to decide the election result six weeks before the general election. You're important Jeremy, but you're not that important!" It was the best response of the night from either candidate, met with strong applause from the audience, and although Paxman smirked he must have known that he'd lost that one. Ed's next answer was the one that made the headlines - "Hell, yes, I'm tough enough" - and while I thought that cringe-worthy and over-rehearsed (who says 'Hell, yes' rather than 'Hell, yeah'?), it was this strong finish from Ed that stayed in the memory. Indeed, the general view from most commentators was that Ed had shown impressive strength throughout, which seems to me a curious interpretation given how much he had been under the cosh up until the final minutes, but shows you how important a decent soundbite can be.
Paxman ended the night by asking, before the mics had been switched off: "Are you OK, Ed? Are you all right?", to which Ed got in: "Yeah! Are you?" before sound was cut. It was the response of a man eager - perhaps a little too eager - to show that he isn't weak. At least he was eager to show something; in contrast, Cameron seemed more interested in getting through proceedings unscathed than in winning over any new voters. In the short term, both men achieved their aims. In reality, I don't think that the evening will have any discernable effect on the vote come election day.

what was I listening to?
Mothership - Led Zeppelin
what was I reading?
Blair - Anthony Seldon
what was I watching?
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
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