Election experts

Challenger debate shows Cameron should be afraid — but not as afraid as Nick Clegg

The faces of a new government? Stefan Rousseau/PA

Without uttering a single word, David Cameron managed to bomb in the third 2015 election debate. By not showing up to a broadcast that, despite all the spin, he could certainly have been part of, he was an easy target for the five party leaders who did take to the stage.

All five were united in their attack on Cameron for the no-show, with Ed Miliband offering a direct challenge to the Prime Minister to debate him head on. And all, with the exception perhaps of Nigel Farage, were united in their wish to keep Cameron out of Downing Street.

But without a doubt, the biggest loser of this debate was the man no-one even mentioned – Nick Clegg. The fact that none of the challenger leaders even felt the need to reference him in their discussion highlighted just how easily the Liberal Democrats could fall through the cracks in this election. Clegg was irrelevant to this debate and could well become irrelevant to the discussion about who becomes part of the next government.

Things may not be so great for Miliband either – even if he did give a strong performance against the other challengers. The last question from the audience in this debate was what the respective parties would be looking for if they were part of post-election negotiations.

While it took almost a full hour-and-a-half for it to be formally acknowledged, what viewers were actually seeing from the start of the debate were coalition negotiations unfolding before their very eyes – as the Conservative Party press office pointed out on Twitter.

Miliband has clearly met his match in Nicola Sturgeon. Confident, measured and effective, the SNP leader was firmly on message, using the Prime Minister’s absence to hammer home her message on standing up to the establishment.

Neatly expanding her usual anti-Tory rhetoric, she stepped up the pressure on Miliband, arguing that there was “not a big enough difference” between him and Cameron. She was critical of Labour policy on the Trident nuclear weapons system and on austerity, highlighting Labour’s manifesto jargon and pressing Miliband on precisely where Labour would make cuts. “Tory-lite,” she said, is just not going to cut it for voters.

Despite giving him a tough time, she once again made it clear that the SNP would “never ever” do a deal with the Conservatives but that she is very open to a deal with Labour – as long as it offers “something better”. And Miliband may soon come to regret his response.

The Labour leader very forcefully declined her offer. Describing the “profound differences” between their parties, he bluntly stated that there would be no coalition with the SNP.

Oh, and Nigel was there too. Stefan Rousseau/PA

With the polls still too close to call and a Labour majority by no means certain, Miliband’s rejection of Sturgeon could be a decision that will come back to haunt him.

And if he does end up backtracking and forming a coalition with the SNP, he will find that Sturgeon is a more difficult coalition partner than Clegg ever was for Cameron.

The SNP is already a party of government and Sturgeon personally has a position in Scotland that quenches her thirst for power. If she became part of a Labour-SNP coalition she would bring an air of confidence and a ministerial experience that the Liberal Democrats never had. Sturgeon’s line that she could “help Labour be bolder” is definitely more than just election talk.