Analysis: Farage gambles and Cameron sticks to his refrain

ITV televised debate had its moments but polls showed no clear winner once again

The UK's only major TV election debate ends in stalement with none of the seven featured party leaders managing to land a knockout blow. Video: ITV/Reuters


Nigel Farage could have used many images in last night’s TV election leaders debate to illustrate his argument that too many foreigners are getting into the United Kingdom.

He chose to use one of the most incendiary: immigrants diagnosed with HIV positive after their arrival on UK shores, who end up being treated with retroviral drugs costing£25,000 each year.

The drawning-in of breaths in liberal households across Britain could have been felt in MediaCityUK, the high-tech new district in Manchester that has become home to the BBC, ITV and a host of other media and Internet organisations.

Throughout, Farage was talking not to the country as a whole, but to those in Britain who want to quit the European Union, end immigration and to return the country to a simpler time that never was.

The exit polls produced within minutes showed that his strategy may have worked, since he ended up being regarded by a fifth of those polled as being the best in the debate, but also as the worst by a fifth.

He has gambled, however, perhaps believing that on the back of a few bad weeks - marred by the loss of candidates - that he needed to put momentum back into the party’s campaign.

In the past, voters have harboured draconian thoughts about immigration; the Conservatives’ “We Know What You’re Thinking” campaign run by Michael Howard in 2005, but voters shied away from it.

HIV positive

Strikingly, Farage was attacked roundly by Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party, Leanne Woods of the Welsh Plaid Cymru and by Natalie Bennett of the Green Party, but others were more careful.

Worried about Labour seats in the North of England where Ukip are contesting, Labour’s Ed Miliband, for example, was clearly not in the mood for a head-to-head with the UKIP leader on the only occasion when he has shared a platform with him.

Instead of attacking Farage openly about HIV positive patients, Miliband said simply Farage’s explanation of the pressures facing the National Health Service were wrong, before he moved on.

David Cameron was even less inclined to enter into a confrontation with Farage, who repeatedly drove home the message that Ukip’s offering to the public is not being matched by any other party.

In a theme that he will repeat endlessly for weeks, Cameron urged British voters “not to put it all at risk”, when he faced strong attacks from other party leaders about his plans to cut public spending further.

During a two-hour marathon debate involving seven party leaders, Cameron claimed that fears raised five years about the Conservatives have been proven to be untrue: “The choice is not go back to square one,” he said.

Sturgeon strikes out

However, the Manchester debate was most striking for other reasons: Sturgeon put herself at the head of a UK-wide anti-austerity campaign, even though SNP candidates can run only in Scotland.

British voters on May 7th are faced with a clear choice, she said: “You can vote for the same old politics and the get the same result, or you can vote for something better and more progressive.

“None of us can afford more austerity,” she said, saying that the priorities of the major parties “are wrong, but they won’t pacy the price, it will be ordinary people people across the country who will pay the price.”

Early polling figures indicate that was no clear winner in the only TV debate pitting the seven political leaders against one another - though early polls last after the Miliband/Cameron TV questioning are said now to have got it wrong.

In a poll released just before midnight, Miliband was leader, Sturgeon took pole position in another, while Miliband, Cameron, and Farage for first place in a third one.

Given that Cameron refused a head-to-head with Miliband, last night’s encounter is the only one where voters will have seen the two men debate the major issues for voters: economy, jobs, immigration, health and the European Union.

Mr Cameron accused the Labour leader of planning more debt, taxes, borrowing and spending and urged voters to let Conservatives complete their “long-term economic plan”, telling them: “What my plan is about is basically one word - security. Security for you, for your family, for our country.”

Urging voters to see him as an alternative prime minister, Miliband repeatedly described what he would do “if I am prime minister”. He accused the PM of wanting to talk about the past rather than the future, and said: “Some people will tell you that this is as good as it gets for Britain. I say Britain can do so much better than it has done over the last five years.”

Nick Clegg sought to distance the Liberal Democrats from the two biggest parties, directly taking on Mr Cameron over what he termed “ideologically driven cuts” and challenging Mr Miliband to use the opportunity presented by the debate to apologise publicly for “crashing the economy” as part of the last Labour administration.

At one point, Mr Cameron was interrupted by a heckler from the 200-strong studio audience, Victoria Prosser, who demanded to be heard as she protested at the treatment of military veterans, shouting:

“There’s more of us than there is of them and they are not listening to us.”

Less than clear picture

But by the end, the picture was less clear, with Mr Miliband leading an ICM poll in The Guardian taking 25% of support, just ahead of Mr Cameron on 24%, with Mr Farage on 19%. A ComRes post-debate poll for ITV News had Miliband, Cameron and Farage tied in first place on 21%, with Sturgeon on 20%. And a YouGov poll had the SNP leader top with 28% backing, followed by Nigel Farage (20%), David Cameron (18%), Ed Miliband (15%).

Labour’s Ed Miliband repeatedly sought to drive home the message that voters are faced with a major choice in the election, one that will decide the future of the country for years ahead.

Rejecting Cameron’s economic claims, the Labour leader, said: “Work doesn’t pay in our country, there are millions doing all the hours that God sends who can’t make ends meet at the end of the month.”

Meanwhile, Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party made a major gamble by saying that immigrants getting £25,000-a-year drugs to treat HIV are putting undue pressure upon the National Health Service

He was roundly criticised by the three women on the platform: Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett of the Green Party and Leanne Woods of Wales’ Plaid Cymru, though Clegg and Miliband quickly disagreed with him, before moving on to other subjects.

“My instinct is look at them as a human being, not consider what country they come from,” said Sturgeon, while Woods said: “his kind of scaremongering is dangerous and it creates stigma.”

Strikingly, Sturgeon made no direct attacks upon Labour’s record in Scotland, though she bids to take dozens of seats from them in May, while Woods focused relentlessly on the campaign in Wales.

Farage’s problems

Farage, who has had a difficult few weeks with candidates who were forced to quit, is clearly betting that his anti-immigration message will get through to voters in the often-deprived constituencies that Ukip is targeting.

Meanwhile, the Ukip was on more successful ground when he argued that all of the other parties do not want to the United Kingdom to quit the EU - a key issue for many of those inclined to vote for his party.

Liberal Democrats leader, Nick Clegg urged voters to realise that coalition-era politics are now part of the UK’s landscape: “No-one standing here is going to win outright. You will have to choose who will be working with whom.”

Driving home the central message of his party’s campaign, Clegg, who apologised for abandoning a pledge to abolish tuition fees and instead increased them, said he would borrow less than Labour and cut less than the Conservatives.

Coming generations cannot be left with the bills left by the people of today, he argued, but he insisted that the Conservatives’ drive to cut spending is driven by ideological reasons.

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