Leaders spar with Paxman in the great debate that never was

Head to head: Ed Miliband and David Cameron
Head to head: Ed Miliband and David Cameron
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It was called “Cameron and Miliband: The Battle for Number 10” but the real battle last night was for the broadcasters to produce a spectacle so compelling the viewers would forget they had been shortchanged.

Because despite managing to get the two candidates to be Prime Minister after May 7 in the same studio at the same time they had failed to achieve their primary goal – to get them to debate with each other.

And as if to add insult to injury, barely 24 hours earlier Prime Minister’s Questions – the weekly Commons exchange of insults so often held up as precisely the reason more thorough and wide-ranging TV debates are needed ahead of the election – had for once produced some light as well as heat.

David Cameron’s ruling out of a rise in VAT followed later in the day by Labour ruling out national insurance increases was a genuinely pivotal moment in the campaign.

That added an extra urgency to efforts to make last night’s non-debate appear an extraordinary event and Sky News pulled out all the stops to with panels of analysts, a helicopter providing aerial shots of the studio and buildings lit up against the night sky.

Presenter Adam Boulton even asked one of his guests which of the two men was the best debater and another what they would like to see from the debate? Both questions conveniently ignoring the fact that no debating would be done.

Once underway, it fell to Jeremy Paxman and a studio audience to elicit answers so revealing that they would still be discussed beyond the morning after the night before and might still be in voters’ minds on polling day.

In the absence of Messrs Miliband and Cameron taking up arms against each other, inviting Mr Paxman was the obvious choice to take potshots at the two men.

That said, the programme did take the two men off their campaign scripts and force them to confront the weaknesses of their positions.

The Prime Minister did not have a ready-made answer when asked if he could live on a zero-hour contract and he was clearly riled when asked about his connections to the rich.

Promising to serve “every day” of a second term was also illuminating, even if it was not immediately clear how that would work.

But the format of the programme let both men off the hook.

The audience’s questions were largely open enough to give Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband room to reach for their tried and tested lines. When Ed Miliband was asked “Why are you so gloomy?” it was an open invitation to set out Labour’s key pledges.

Only at the end of Mr Miliband’s questioning did a genuine exchange of views begin.

Moderator Kay Burley was also limited by the need to get through a large number of questions.

And like boxers waiting for the bell, both men knew that an 18 minute interview was not enough time for Paxman to dwell on any single subject for long and if they could parry his jabs for long enough a commercial break would save them.

The presence of someone synonymous with grilling politicians also quickly dispelled the illusion that this was anything other than political interview with audience participation and a bit of razzmatazz tacked on.

Behind the scenes, the parties spinners’ sought to convince the watching media their man had triumphed.

But in the absence of a stand out gaffe or pledge, and with a full six weeks to go before polling day, it is highly unlikely “The Battle for Number 10” was won or lost in many voters’ minds last night.

The one certain winner was Paxman who reminded television bosses that if voters were casting a ballot for political interviewers this coming May, he would win a landslide.