Leaders' debate: all you need to know about the seven-way clash

Big Ben, Westminster

What the polls said

What would you like them to say? You can probably find one that proves you right.

There were five snap polls after the debate and each of them came up with a (often only slightly) different outcome. Here are the results of the Guardian/ICM poll:

Guardian/ICM post-debate poll.
Guardian/ICM post-debate poll. Photograph: Guardian/ICM

Notably, when those polled were asked to choose between the two contenders for prime minister, they were split 50-50 between David Cameron and Ed Miliband.

In the other polls:

  • ComRes-ITV had Cameron, Miliband and Nigel Farage tied on 21%. Nicola Sturgeon was next on 20%, followed by Nick Clegg on 9%, Natalie Bennett on 5% and Leanne Wood on 2%.
  • YouGov had Sturgeon top with 28%. Farage was second on 20%, ahead of Cameron (18%) and Miliband (15%). Clegg was on 10%, Bennett on 5% and Wood on 4%.
  • Survation for the Daily Mirror put Cameron and Miliband on 25% each; Farage on 24%, Sturgeon on 15%, Clegg on 6%, Bennett on 3%, Wood on 2%.
  • Ipsos-Mori’s analysis of Twitter reactions had Sturgeon the clear winner.

Once you put them all together, you get this: a dead heat between Cameron and Miliband, with Farage and Sturgeon hot on their heels:

Average scores from ICM, YouGov, ComRes, Survation, Ipsos Mori polls.
Average scores from ICM, YouGov, ComRes, Survation, Ipsos Mori polls. Photograph: Guardian

This seems to be a pretty sensible analysis from my colleagues in Westminster:

Labour, aware of Miliband’s poor personal ratings before the campaign, will be pleased he was at least matching the normally more popular David Cameron, according to ICM and the three other post-debate polls.

But the prime minister will be pleased that he emerged from a safety-first performance largely unscathed from his only head-to-head television clash with Miliband.

If you only have 5 minutes …

The seven leaders in their own words

The phrases they wanted to lodge in our brains:

  • Bennett decent, peaceful political revolution;
  • Clegg fair, don’t lurch this way or that;
  • Sturgeon change, Scotland, progressive;
  • Cameron long term economic plan, mistakes of the past;
  • Wood hope, communities, Wales;
  • Miliband working people, future, fairer choices;
  • Farage what no one talks about, get real.

The seven leaders in our columnists’ words

  • Jonathan Freedland: Miliband struggled; Sturgeon easy command; Farage rant; Wood applause; Cameron remote.
  • Gaby Hinsliff: Cameron stuck; Clegg triangulated; Miliband earnest; Farage spluttered; Wood least impressive; Bennett human; Sturgeonaspirational.
  • Hugh Muir: Cameron ill at ease; Miliband combative; Clegg forlorn; Sturgeon assured; Bennett and Wood distinctive; Farage vacuity.
  • Polly Toynbee: Cameron unsettled; Clegg grating; Farage loser; Sturgeon stellar; Wood good; Bennett amateurish; Miliband confident.

You can read all the words between the adjectives here.

Leaders’ debate highlights.

What the leaders said

Clegg’s opening gambit was a pragmatic one:

I think it’s pretty obvious that no one standing here is going to win this election outright. You’re going to have to choose … who’s going to work with who.

They then spent the following two hours making it pretty clear that they’d need sturdy nose pegs to work with each other at all (Sturgeon and Wood the notable exception).

Question 1: how to cut the deficit?

What we learned:

  • Clegg: it’s all about balance. The wealthiest need to pay a bit more.
  • Cameron: We will find savings of £1 in every £100 the government spends. I don’t want to put up taxes.
  • Wood: We were told the deficit would be eliminated during this parliament; debt has gone up. So much pain for so little gain.
  • Farage: We could easily cut £10bn from the foreign aid budget; another £10bn from brussels; revisit the Barnett formula and save £5bn.
  • Miliband: Reverse tax cut to millionaires. Make spending reductions (note: he didn’t call them cuts) in areas outside education and health. Boost living standards.
  • Bennett: We’re offering the reversal of austerity. We do need to raise taxes on those who aren’t currently paying their share.
  • Sturgeon: Economic policy shouldn’t be an end in itself, it should be a means. We should have modest spending increases … the deficit would still continue to fall.

The key exchange

Sturgeon: Where are those £12bn cuts in welfare going to fall? Who is going to pay the price?

Cameron: What is the alternative? It’s putting up taxes and cutting people’s pay. I don’t want to see that happen.

Sturgeon: That’s not the kind of economic plan I want. I want an economic plan that protects the vulnerable.

The zinger

Farage says all parties agree to committing 0.7% of GDP to foreign aid, for reasons he can’t understand. You’re wrong, says Bennett: we want to lift it to 1%.

The unanswered question

Wood to Miliband: will you give £1.2bn to Wales? [This is the amount she says is due in order to bring parity with Scotland.]

Question 2: long-term funding for the NHS

Or “our NHS”, as both Miliband and Cameron are careful to put it.

What we learned:

  • Farage: For emergency care, it’s probably the best in the world … We’d put an extra £3bn in and end hospital parking charges.
  • Sturgeon: It’s the most precious public service we’ve got … It should not be for profit, and SNP MPs in Westminster will vote against privatisation [health in Scotland is devolved to Holyrood].
  • Bennett: There’s no place for privatisation in healthcare. We want 0% in profits and to take the market mechanism out.
  • Clegg: The NHS doesn’t need warm words, it needs hard cash. We’ll ask the richest to pay extra to find £8bn. More for Scotland and Wales too (£800m and £450m).
  • Wood: The NHS in Wales faces two threats: continued cuts and centralisation; that’s the fault of the Labour government in Wales.
  • Miliband: A mansion tax will help pay for the NHS; as will hedge funds and tobacco companies for the Time to Care fund. My two sons were born in a PFI hospital.
  • Cameron: This is the most important national institution that we have. My son Ivan received unbelievable care. A strong NHS needs a strong economy.

The key exchange

Having tried to turn the conversation to so-called health tourism – prompting Sturgeon to ask if there was anything he wouldn’t blame on foreigners – Farage steered the debate into the most contentious waters of the night:

Nigel Farage attacked over comments on HIV.

My challenge to everybody here was of course ignored and brushed aside for chiefly politically correct reasons. Here’s a fact and I’m sure the other people here will be mortified that I dare to talk about it.

There are 7,000 diagnoses in this country every year for people who are HIV+, which is not a good place for any of them to be, I know. But 60% of them are not British nationals. You can come into Britain from anywhere in the world and get diagnosed with HIV and get the retroviral drugs* that cost up to £25,000 per year per patient.

I know there are some horrible things happening in many parts of the world but what we need to do is to put the national health service there for British people and families who in many cases have paid into this system for decades.

[*They’re actually called antiretroviral drugs, by the way.]

Let’s move quickly on to:

The zinger

Courtesy of Leanne Wood:

This kind of scaremongering rhetoric is dangerous. It’s dangerous, it divides communities, and it creates stigma to people who are ill and I think you ought to be ashamed of yourself.

Farage didn’t look particularly ashamed, but Wood’s admonishment won her the first applause of the night.

Sturgeon backed her:

When someone is diagnosed with a dreadul illness my instinct is to view them as a human being, not consider what country they come from.

Miliband and Clegg didn’t tackle the issue on the night (to be scrupulously fair, the debate had moved on a bit by the time they got their next turn to speak) but later joined the criticism:

The unanswered question

Plenty of them. What does the MidStaffs scandal tell us about Labour’s record on the NHS, Cameron asked? But Miliband wanted to know why Cameron had promised “no top-down reorganisation” of the NHS in his 2010 manifesto. Cameron said he liked doctors with stethoscopes not bureaucrats with clipboards. If anyone spots a bureaucrat with a clipboard, please send them back to the 1980s sitcom from which they’ve escaped.

Question 3: how would you address the immigration issue?

At last! Farage gets to talk about the issue he’s always telling us we’re not allowed to talk about, even though talking about it and talking about how we’re not allowed to talk about it is virtually the only thing he talks about.

What we learned

  • Miliband: I don’t think it’s prejudiced to worry about immigration. No benefits for the first two years, and stop the undercutting of wages. If you want a party that will cut Britain off from the rest of the world, that’s not me.

[He doesn’t say who it is, but I’m going to go with “Nigel Farage” here.]

  • Wood: Bankers caused the financial crisis, not immigrants. It’s often true that areas with most anti-immigrant feeling have low immigration but are also poor. The immigration debate doesn’t help the problem.
  • Sturgeon: The answer is investing more in homes, services and a decent minimum wage. The views of Westminster parties are driven by fear of Ukip not by rational debate. Of EU immigrants, most work or are students.
  • Cameron: Immigration too high and needs to come down. No unemployment benefit for those coming from the EU; if they have no job within six months, they’ll have to go home. And they can’t send child benefit to families back home.
  • Farage: There’s nothing we can do while we’re in the EU. We have a total open door to 10 former communist countries and the eurozone. We’d have to build a new house every seven minutes to deal with current levels of immigration.
  • Clegg: There’s good immigration and bad immigration. We have new checks at the border, penalties for unscrupulous employers, no benefits if you don’t learn English. But without good immigration the NHS would collapse overnight.
  • Bennett: We celebrate the free movement of people within the EU. Problems are caused by government policy failures not immigrants.

The key exchange

Bennett said the UK government had taken in only 143 Syrian refugees, and asked: “Why aren’t we taking our fair share?”

Cameron: We have taken some of the most vulnerable people, including elderly and disabled people … but we are one of the biggest nations helping people in refugee camps so they can go home. We cannot take all those people in.

The zinger

Clegg to Farage:

The Farage family were foreigners once. I’m married to a foreigner – you’re married to a foreigner.

Honourable mentions

Cameron: Never mind zero hours, with Ed you’d get zero jobs.

Sturgeon to Cameron:

If there are changes needing made in the European union, then surely the best thing to do is to try to build alliances to make those changes, not act like a petulant schoolchild threatening to leave if you don’t get your way?

The unanswered question

Wood and Sturgeon wanted a commitment from those parties backing an in-out referendum that all four countries of the UK should have to agree before it could leave the EU. They’re still waiting.

Immigration prompted some of the most heated debate between the party leaders.

Question 4: what will you do for young people?

What we learned

  • Wood: Young people are going to fare worse than the older generation and it’s the first time for a long time that’s been true. Plaid wants free university tuition fees but pledge to retain the fee subsidy and make some courses free, eg for doctors.
  • Miliband: I’d guarantee access to good education and to apprenticeships if you get the grades; cut university fees to £6,000; ban zero-hours contracts; build 200,000 homes a year by 2020. Young people “being ripped off” in the private rental sector.
  • Cameron: Most important is to make sure there are good jobs. I want to create 2m more good jobs in the next parliament, and 3m apprenticeships. I’ve already uncapped university places and backed starter homes for British people to buy.
  • Bennett: Education should be paid for by progressive taxation. Students leave with an average £44,000 debt; 77% will never pay it off and 45p in every pound is never going to be repaid. Greens want no tuition fees and would pay” off student debt.
  • Clegg: “I of course infamously couldn’t put into practice my party’s policy on tuition fees … there was no money left … we did the next best thing.” Don’t forget about the pupil premium, and free meals at primary school.
  • Sturgeon: Scotland has kept access to university free of fees … “I wouldn’t be here as first minister without the free education I had access to. I think it’s shameful for any politician who has benefitted from free education to take it away from others.”
  • Farage: Young people from private schools are happy: they’re rich, they’re dominating jobs. Abolishing grammar schools pulled up the ladder. “We encouraged lots of people to go to university who weren’t academic and would have done better with a trade.” He’d back building homes on brownfield sites.

The key exchange:

Clegg asks Cameron why the Conservatives are planning to cut money for schools. Cameron is having none of it:

We sat in the cabinet room together, we took difficult decisions together. I defend all the decisions we took and I think your sort of pick-and-mix approach is not going to convince anybody.

The zinger

Sturgeon: I think we’ve seen tonight from this discussion why we really need to break the old boys’ network at Westminster because frankly none of these guys can be trusted when it comes to tuition fees … I would say, hope there’s some SNP MPs in Westminster keeping him [Miliband] honest.

The unanswered question

Wood to Miliband: why did Labour in Wales vote against a Plaid Cymru amendment to scrap zero-hours contracts in the care sector?

But you could also argue that the question from the audience member – who was after responses that would make young people feel “optimistic” – didn’t bring out the shiny happy answers either. Bennett talked (not sure how we got there) about wildlife extinction. Farage – go on, guess – talked about self-government. Wood talked about jobs, which is at least a plus. But Cameron wins the downer prize with his reminder that young people really ought to be thinking about their pensions.

Closing statements

What we learned:

  • Sturgeon: Vote for something different, better, more progressive. And if you’re not in Scotland, don’t worry: we can bring about change for you too.
  • Clegg: Above all, make sure we don’t lurch this way or that. Let us finish the job fairly.
  • Miliband: Let’s build a Britain that puts working people first.
  • Wood: Austerity is not inevitable, it’s a choice. This election is a chance for Wales to be strong like Scotland.
  • Bennett: Vote for what you believe in, not for the lesser of two evils.
  • Farage: I warned you at the beginning, I said they were all the same: the politically correct political class … Most of them never had a job in their lives*.
  • [*Well, Wood was a probation officer, Sturgeon a solicitor, Bennett a journalist of this parish. But not real jobs like being a stockbroker, true.]
  • Cameron: I’ve tried to have one task in mind above all others: fixing the economy. Stick with the plan and the team who brought that plan.

Who went off-message

<Thinks> <Thinks some more> No one.

Apart from this studio audience member, Victoria Prosser, whoheckled Cameron about armed services veterans sleeping on the streets, bucking the general audience trend, which was to be very, very quiet.

David Cameron is heckled about the homeless by audience member Victoria Prosser.

What happened afterwards

Wood and Sturgeon hugged. Miliband sought out Cameron for a handshake, and was the first to head for the audience (he likes working people). Clegg and Farage had a brief natter.

Farage went for a cigarette.

Oh, and the pundits piled in. There will be tonnes of coverage today; do have a read of Anne Perkins on why having three women on the stage did matter. But I’ll save you the bother of reading Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail with this little taster, which surely qualifies as most redundant cultural reference of the night:

And Who On Earth was that Welsh Leanne? Had she walked in from a recording of Gavin and Stacey?

The newspapers, for the most part, seemed to stick with the front pages they’d drafted at 7.55pm:

Still not enough for you? Here’s what else to read:

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