David Cameron survived an intense grilling in the first of four TV leaders’ programmes during which he was put under severe pressure over his wealthy friends, plans for welfare cuts and an admission that he could not live on a zero-hours contract.
While the prime minister looked clearly unsettled by Jeremy Paxman’s questioning, an instant Guardian/ICM poll showed the public believed Cameron had the better of the back-to-back questioning by 54% to 46%. The poll was among 1,123 people watching the 90-minute show.
There was better news for Ed Miliband when it came to the crucial question of whether people would shift their votes: 56% of the respondents who said they might change their mind plumped for Labour, as against just 30% for the Conservatives.
Cameron was repeatedly pressed to spell out how he could identify £12bn of welfare cuts, saying he was simply trying to cut an extra £1 in every £100 spent by government, but he refused to say more than he had already set out in plans to freeze in-work benefits.
The prime minister said: “We’ve identified, for instance, freezing in-work benefits ... for two years to raise some of that money, but the £12bn, that compares with £20bn that was saved in this current parliament on welfare, so this is well within the range of what we can do.”
Miliband, appearing second, was repeatedly asked about the strength of his character. He denied he was a “north London geek” and insisted, “Am I tough enough? Hell yes, I am tough enough to be prime minister.” He pointed out he stood up to the US president, Barack Obama, over whether to bomb Syria.
The Labour leader added: “I am a pretty resilient guy, but I have been underestimated at every turn. People said I would not become leader and I did. People said four years ago I could not become prime minister, I think I can. You were saying I cannot win a majority, I think I can. So let people underestimate me but what I care about is what is happening to the British people in their lives.”
The prime minister was also questioned on his friendships with Lord Green, the former chairman of HSBC; Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson ; and Andy Coulson, Cameron’s former director of communications.
Paxman asked: “You would choose, for example, to appoint a man who oversaw tax avoidance as a minister in your government – you would choose to appoint a rich newspaper editor whose newspaper hacked people’s phones. What do you have in common with all these very rich people?”
Cameron replied: “The aspersion you are trying to cast is completely ridiculous.”
He conceded that he had not asked Green about possible tax avoidance in HSBC’s Swiss branch at the time of his appointment.
And on Clarkson, Cameron said he had previously spoken up for him because: “I just simply answered a question I was asked and said he is a friend of mine, he is a talent and I hoped it could be resolved. Treating the people you work with badly is not acceptable. The BBC have made their decision and that is absolutely right for them.”
The normally relaxed Cameron struggled to find space to set out his story about a recovering economy and had to admit he did not know how many food banks existed in the UK. He then conceded he would not be able to live on the income from a zero-hours contract.
The prime minister said: “Obviously there has been an increase in food bank use – that’s partly because of the difficulties [with the economy] ... It’s also because we’ve changed the rules. The previous government didn’t allow jobcentres to advertise the existence of food banks.”
He was also forced to concede he had not reached his aim of cutting net immigration to below 100,000, saying: “We cut immigration from outside the European Union, that is down by 13%, but inside the EU, immigration has increased – I’m afraid not least because we have created more jobs in Britain than the rest of the EU put together. What we need to do now is keep the economy going but fix [the benefits system].”
Ed Miliband, who went second, also faced pressure on the same issue, saying the UK benefitted from diversity. He said the previous Labour government had got it wrong, but refused to pluck out a figure from the air on the number of migrants that should be allowed to come to the UK.
Cameron also came under pressure over foreign policy as Paxman asked the prime minister to set out his biggest foreign policy disaster. Cameron said: “I don’t accept that we left the Libyan people after that – it just hasn’t been possible to get the different Libyan parts of government together, to get the warlords to put down their weapons, but we’re still trying.”
Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, told Sky News that Miliband had clearly given a better performance, giving him 7/10 against Cameron’s 4/10. “It was not what I expected at all,” he said. “In terms of personalities, he fought back more, was more human and got the audience clapping. Cameron was nowhere near that. Cameron looked discomfited.”
It fell to William Hague to defend the prime minister in the spin room. He denied that Cameron was out of sorts after the government lost a motion in the Commons aimed at ousting the Speaker amid a rebellion on his backbenches. “The prime minister was not grumpy. He does not get grumpy and he showed no sign of being that tonight,” Hague told journalists.
Asked why Cameron did not get the audience laughing and at ease as Miliband did, Hague said: “They were laughing at him and pointing out Ed Balls was a weak point in the shadow cabinet. The prime minister handled the entire interview extremely well.”
The instant Guardian/ICM poll found that David Cameron had narrowly “won” the contest, with 54% saying that the PM came out on top once the don’t knows were excluded, compared with just 46% who felt that Miliband had the edge.
The sample of viewers, who were weighted to bring them in line with the broader population, were asked to put aside their party preference and concentrate only on what they heard during the programme. 46% felt that Cameron had the best arguments, as against 44% who said the same of Miliband.
Cameron was also judged slightly more convincing – by 48% to 43% – and to have the more appealing personality, by 46% to 42%. He chalked up a clearer win on “actually answering the questions asked”, by 44% to 37%.
David Cameron retains his lead as best prime minister in this survey - but by a smaller margin than in many past polls – he is preferred on this count by 48% as against just 40% for Miliband.
This article was written by Patrick Wintour Political editor Tom Clark and Rowena Mason, for theguardian.com on Thursday 26th March 2015 23.21 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010