Election experts

Election debate: Cameron coasts, Farage falls flat and Sturgeon steals the show

The SNP and Plaid leaders worked together to show up the pack. ITV

It nearly didn’t happen, but for the first time ever, the British public has heard from seven party leaders in one TV debate. And for the first time ever, Natalie Bennett, Nigel Farage, Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood were given a very public platform to debate with the main party leaders.

For weeks we have heard that the inclusion of the minor parties was a strategic move by David Cameron; that their inclusion would dilute the impact of a Labour leader who would undoubtedly have done his homework. And indeed, the pre-debate chatter ahead of the broadcast cited Farage and Cameron as the most likely winners.

As I argued last month, the most obvious common ground between the small parties is their anti-austerity rhetoric. And the three women played heavily on that during the two-hour show.

As the first of the three to speak, Bennett set the scene. She argued that voters “deserve better” than the current austerity package on offer. Sturgeon built on this, highlighting the “positive change” the SNP could bring to austerity Britain. It was also a big feature of their closing statements – Sturgeon arguing that the UK can’t afford any more cuts and Bennett stressing that austerity was a choice, rather than a certainty.

Three-pronged attack

Sturgeon was clearly the leader of the three, with the Plaid and Green leaders rallying around throughout.

Wood and Sturgeon. ITV
At times the gender divide was striking. Sturgeon for instance argued that “none of these guys can be trusted on tuition fees”. In 2010 the catchphrase of the debate was “I agree with Nick”’, but the theme of this leader debate was very much “I agree with Nicola”. Afterwards, Sturgeon continued this solidarity, tweeting her support for her “friend” Leanne Wood.

The average of the three post-debate polls showed the benefits of this strategy. Bennett and Wood received very modest support, with just 4% and 3% rating them as the winner, while Sturgeon forged ahead with 22%. Combined, their 29% is far above that of either Cameron or Miliband.

Old guard on the back foot

Cameron looked very confident in his second appearance on a live pre-election show, but he didn’t really engage with the three women. And he didn’t need to. His eyes were on Miliband.

The Labour leader has already ruled out a coalition with the SNP and seemed to be trying to sweep the issue under the carpet. He directed most of his attacks at Cameron, preventing Sturgeon and her colleagues from grabbing any more of the limelight than they already had.

The SNP leader seemed content with this – and it fit nicely with her tactic of emphasising that she disagrees with all of the three main parties. Once again, she was backed up by Wood and Bennett who were also at pains to emphasise that they were very different to the traditional political parties.

By far the worst performance of the night came from Nigel Farage. The UKIP leader was predicted to do well – and he didn’t fare too badly in the post debate polls. But his strategy was poor. The tunnel vision approach of concentrating solely on Europe was too predictable. At one point Sturgeon even quipped that there was simply nothing he wouldn’t blame on immigrants. His monomania may help retain the UKIP vote, but it certainly won’t increase it.

All in all, Farage was very effectively cut out by Sturgeon, Bennett and Wood. The three now seem to be playing the opposition game a lot more effectively than he can.