Speaking during the final TV leaders event prior to next week’s election, the Labour leader came under pressure over the previous Labour government’s record on the deficit, his attitude to the private sector and his potential dependence on the SNP.
The three main Westminster leaders – Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg – appeared in a BBC Question Time format that left them each exposed to 30 minutes of hostile and informed questioning from a confident audience.
An instant Guardian/ICM poll found that Cameron had come out on top, with 44% of those surveyed feeling that the prime minister had done “best on the night”, compared with 38% for Miliband and 19% for Nick Clegg. But only 8% said their vote would be swayed by what they had seen.
With the election only a week away, the three grillings were seen as critical to the outcome of the closest election for a generation.
The format of the separate cross-examinations had been agreed by the BBC after Cameron refused to appear alongside the other Westminster leaders in a head-to-head debate.
Although the pressure put on Miliband over Labour’s record on tax and spending was intense, probably the most significant moment of the 90 minutes came when the Labour leader was asked whether he was ready to form a coalition in a hung parliament with the SNP.
The Labour campaign has been dogged by what Cameron has dubbed a “dangerous alliance” after opinion polls suggest that Miliband would be unable to form a government without the support of Nicola Sturgeon’s party.
Miliband dismissed the prime minister’s warnings when audience member Simon Wilkinson asked him why the Labour party was misleading the country over a deal with the SNP.
The Labour leader then ruled out a coalition or a less formal “confidence and supply” arrangement.
Miliband added: “Let me be plain. We’re not going to do a deal with the Scottish National party; we’re not going to have a coalition, we’re not going to have a deal.
“Let me just say this to you – if it meant we weren’t going to be in government, not doing a coalition, not having a deal, then so be it.
“I am not going to sacrifice the future of our country, the unity of our country, I’m not going to give in to SNP demands around Trident, around the deficit, or anything like that.
“I just want to repeat this point to you: I am not going to have a Labour government if it means deals or coalitions with the SNP. I want to say this to voters in Scotland.”
Reacting to Miliband’s tough line on working with the SNP, Sturgeon said on the BBC Scotland Question Time segment: “I heard Ed Miliband and he sounded awfully like he was saying – and I hope I’m wrong about this because I think people across Scotland and the rest of the UK would be appalled if I’m right – he sounded as if he was saying that he would rather see David Cameron and the Conservatives back in government than actually work with the SNP.
“Now, if he means that, then I don’t think people in Scotland will ever forgive Labour for allowing the Conservatives back into office. But if he is a minority government, then he will not be able to get policies through without winning support from other parties.”
Miliband’s comments marked a hardening of his position, which has progressively toughened in recent months.
The Labour leader indicated that if he became prime minister in a hung parliament, he would simply challenge other parties to risk voting down a Labour Queen’s speech.
“My approach is not to start to barter away different bits of the manifesto,” he said.
The Tories pounced on a claim by Miliband that the last Labour government did not overspend. “No, I don’t,” he said when he was asked if he agreed that Labour spent too much.
An unrepentant Miliband said: “There are schools that have been rebuilt in our country, there were hospitals that were rebuilt, there were Sure Start centres that were built which would not have happened.
“There was a global financial crisis which caused the deficit to rise. President Obama isn’t dealing with a high deficit because we built more schools and hospitals.”
Viewers at home were inclined to say that all three of the political leaders had done well rather than badly – and by fairly similar majorities, according to polling. Cameron was seen as doing “very or “quite” well by 65%, Miliband by 61% and Clegg by 63%.
Relatively few votes are likely to have been changed by the evening: only 6% of the sample indicated that their mind had been changed by what they saw, while 87% said it would make no difference to how they voted.
Among the overall weighted sample, a five percentage point Labour lead at the start of the programme had diminished by a single point to 4%.
Miliband will be pleased that, in contrast to much negative personal polling, he drew the prime minister level – with 43% each – on coming across as having “the more appealing personality”.
But in line with Cameron’s overall advantage, he bested Miliband – by 47% to 42% – on having the better arguments.
On the crucial “best prime minister” test, Cameron retained his usual comfortable lead, although not by the dramatic margin sometimes seen – he prevails on this score by 48% to Miliband’s 34%.
Cameron, putting in a fluent performance, came under most pressure over his reluctance to spell out how he will find £12bn of welfare cuts before 2017-18.
When asked whether he had commissioned the paper produced by the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, looking for £8bn of welfare cuts in 2012, including cuts to child benefit and tax credits, Cameron insisted he had not asked for them.
He said papers were instead produced by people in government.
Lib Dem sources insist the paper specifically states it was requested by the prime minister, suggesting Cameron had not been accurate in his reply.
Cameron insisted he did not want to cut child benefit or child tax credits, adding: “This report that was out today is something I rejected at the time as prime minister and I reject again today.”
Asked if this was an “absolute guarantee” not to cut child benefit or child tax credit, the Conservative leader said: “Child tax credit we increased by £450. That’s not going to fall. Child benefit, to me is one of the most important benefits there is.
“It goes directly to the family – normally to the mother – £20 for the first child, £14 for the second.
“It is the key part of family’s budgets in this country. That’s not what we need to change.”
But he warned that if other parties shied away from reforming welfare, they would be forced to impose “deep cuts” on public services like the NHS.
Clegg defended his party’s decision to reveal the existence of the 2012 paper, first disclosed in a leak to the Guardian, saying: “Unless the Conservatives come clean – and I don’t think David Cameron has done it this evening – where they are going to take the equivalent of £1,500 off eight million of the most vulnerable families?
“We can only assume that they are looking at the kind of plans which they floated some years ago in government.”
Cameron insisted voters understood his decision to continue to cut welfare, and he produced a copy of the notorious note left by the former Labour Treasury chief secretary Liam Byrne in 2010 saying: “There is no money left.”
“That is the situation I inherited,” Cameron said. “We have made difficult decisions over these last five years and I accept not every decision has been easy for people.”
Defending his moral priorities, he said: “I showed you that note about we had no money when we became the government.
“When we got that note we still made a very big decision which is what we said, yes we’re going to have to make cuts in some areas of government spending but the NHS is going to get more money every year.”
Cameron said that some families were receiving housing benefits worth £90,000 a year when he arrived in power, while others were “working hard, paying taxes to keep that family in that house that they could never afford to live in. A life on benefits is no life at all”.
One audience member said the Tories should provide more detail about where the axe will fall, telling Cameron: “I think you are either deceiving the British public or you know exactly what you are going to do but you are refusing to give specifics. I find that very difficult to understand. How can I possibly vote for you on that basis?”
In his appearance, Clegg was thrown on the defensive over the familiar charge that he had agreed to treble university tuition fees.
The Liberal Democrat leader said he accepted that some voters could not forgive his party, but asked the public to remember all the polices his party had implemented, saying the decision to form the coalition in 2010 came at a short-term political cost, but was plucky, brave and necessary in the national economic interest.
“I got it wrong. I have said sorry ... I hope you can give me credit for the many other things I have put into practice,” he said. “What we did was get the fairest deal we could in the circumstances.”
Asked if he would still go into the coalition if he had his time again, he replied: “Yes, absolutely, the more I look back on it, the more proud I am.”
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