Opposition party leaders put on energetic display of pre-prepared talking that saw Cameron lose 5-0

Monty Burns in chair

On nights like these it always seems a shame that there has to be a loser. Although on this occasion if there was a winner here, Clive, it was shrill, oddly repetitive mass-debating itself, as in front of a packed Westminster Hall the leaders of the opposition parties put on a crisp, clean, energetic display of high-class pre-prepared talking.

At the end of which Ed Miliband probably edged it on points. Nicola Sturgeon also probably edged it on points. Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett probably edged it on points too. Nigel Farage went down in the second round, gasping for air, eyes swivelling. And only David Cameron, a no-show, lost heavily. The pools panel said: away win.

Right from the start it was a thrillingly taut and frantic clash of the B-teamers. In fact in sporting terms this was probably best described as a mass world title eliminator, a chance to stake a claim as mandatory challenger to the champ. Or champs. Co-champs. Whatever. Boxing is probably a decent analogy for coalition politics in Britain, a trash-talking fudge of shrunken influence, self-promotion and weak-chinned heavyweights.

Talking of which, here they came, ranged behind their plinths in front of a strangely washed out red-tinged Westminster background, and refereed by a sombre David Dimbleby, who chose his sonorously-resigned state funeral voice for the occasion.

Miliband, the No1 seed, had two clear goals here. To look like a prime minister in waiting. And to look like he’s got absolutely nothing in common with Nicola Sturgeon. Plus of course to stop smiling that peculiarly guileless smile, the look of a man who’s just been hit on the head with a rock and thinks it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to him.

Here though Miliband played a quiet blinder for much of the evening, adopting an oddly serene, beatifically long-suffering manner, like a sad, wise dying aunt offering a final benediction. Sturgeon, the real talent in the field, was ready for him, bobbing and weaving at the plinth, fluent in both defence and attack and only slightly hampered – or possibly helped – by the fact at times she resembles a very frightening child genius from the 1950s.

With Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett both showing well at times, Miliband found himself being overrun on his weak left flank, although he was rescued by a common opponent in Farage. As half time came and went in a blur of vaguely talking about things Miliband and Farage finally went toe-to-toe over the idea of a European Army. There’s not going to be a Europeanarmy. Yes there is. No there isn’t. Oh yes. It was high-class stuff all round.

Remobilising – as ever a very jolly, friendly Toby Jug that secretly wants to kill you – Farage seemed to struggle here in front of a hostile crowd. Although not as badly as Cameron, the mere mention of whom by any of the debaters was enough to bring a jeering roar. “There’s not enough difference between Ed Miliband and David Cameron,” Sturgeon announced to cheers, seizing the absent prime minster and walloping Miliband around the head with his pinstriped legs.

As tiredness set in the debate lost its shape. Miliband announced he was “coming after the gang-masters” (cue gang-masters all around the country spitting out their coffee, barricading the door, unholstering their Uzis). There was a mini-ruck over the NHS, Farage yelling “STOP LYING,” as Bennett fog-horned “I’M GOING TO COME IN NOW.”

And finally, like a toxic family Christmas where it all comes out in the end, the real match-up between Labour and the SNP came to the boil. Ed and Nicola were shrieking at each other across the turkey and Farage was butting in – the drunken uncle who sleeps in his car and seems inexplicably furious about the sprouts. At the end of which the final result was a creditable draw. Albeit one that that Cameron – called out at the last again by Miliband (“Debate me. One. On. One. Debate me”) – still managed to lose 5-0.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Barney Ronay, for theguardian.com on Friday 17th April 2015 06.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010