Cameron and Miliband appeared on Channel 4 and Sky News to be interviewed by ex-Newsnight host Paxman, and take questions from a live studio audience in the #BattleforNumber10. This is part of a range of programmes we will see coming up to the General Election. There will be a seven way discussion on the 2nd of April, Miliband and counterparts from UKIP, the SNP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru on the 16th of April. We will also see a three way debate between the leaders of the major parties, Miliband, Cameron and Clegg on the 30th of April, just a week before the election on the 7th.
Paxman took no prisoners throughout his interviews with the leaders. With the current Prime Minister, David Cameron up first, he was immediately thrown into the deep end. Paxman asked how in a rich country like ours, it is acceptable that we have this many people on food banks. Cameron continuously deflected away from answering whether the rise of food banks usage was an indication of his failure. Similarly with zero hours contracts, Paxman repeatedly asked whether Cameron could live on this type of contract. After more deflection, Cameron flippantly said “no, I couldn’t live on one.” He claimed “some people choose zero hours contracts.”
To move away from his failure to tackle zero hours contracts, Cameron said he wants to see the minimum wage go up. He said that by cutting tax the government has helped the poorest in the country. Paxman wouldn’t let Cameron slide on these points. He said he was “going to make it personal”, stating, “this is what people don’t like about you”. Paxman claimed Cameron chooses to align himself with members of the rich elite including recently sacked Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson, HSBC chief executive Lord Green and political strategist Andy Coulson . Cameron laughed at this point and responded saying, “the aspersion you’re trying to cast is completely ridiculous. What I have done over the last five years is lead a government that has got the economy growing.”
Paxman continued his famous belligerent style of interviewing: “let’s come to the economy then, you said we were overwhelmed with debt and how much money have you borrowed?” Leading Cameron to give in with the response: “I know we have borrowed a lot of money. And you’re going to tell me, Jeremy.” Paxman revealed that it was “a mere £500 billion”, and as Cameron tried to make shots at the previous government’s borrowing, Paxman added “no, that is more borrowing than the last government.”
Cameron repeatedly found himself in hot water as Paxman turned to what promises Cameron had made before the last election. Immigration was a major point here. Paxman pointed to Cameron’s ‘no ifs, no buts’ pledge to cut immigration by tens of thousands and eventually made him admit his failure: “I have not met the commitment that I made, I fully accept that.” More of Cameron’s failed promises ranging from his pledge not to raise VAT to his foreign policy pledges on Libya were pointed out.
The whole interview pointed to Cameron’s denial about his failures in government. He wasn’t going to be explicit about any of his potential shortcomings. Of course, Paxman picked up on this, asking: “in the spirit of transparency where is £12 billion in welfare savings going to come from?” Cameron avoided specifying, alluding to some cuts to out of work benefits, which lead Paxman to say, “I don’t want to be rude but do you know and are not telling us or do you not know?”
Throughout Cameron would deflect answering questions properly in favour of repeating party slogans about the economy: “We now have the fastest growing economy in the West. We have created 2 million private sector jobs. I want more people to live on full time work. We’ve been through one of the worst recessions in our country’s history and now we’re coming out of it.”
During the audience’s questions Cameron was questioned on his policies towards the elderly, disabled, NHS, the police and public services which he avoided answering fully. Cameron did not allude to the cuts he will make to all of these areas of public life, nor did he relay any specific detail on what is to come under his potential leadership.
Throughout both the interview and audience’s questions, Cameron either avoided the question to the point where he would talk about unrelated things or would jump to his buzz words about the economy for every answer. This sums up Conservative attitudes in the election campaign, the lack of core policies on services or welfare is evident. The intensity of likely future cuts was not something only picked up on by disabled, elderly members of the audience but by people from various public service professions showing the widespread areas of vulnerability in our society at the hands of a Conservative government. Cameron’s appearance on this program sums up why people are so disillusioned. Cameron would not admit the places he’s failed and this would at least relieve the frustration and confusion of those who listened to his pledges and voted Conservative in 2010.
During audience’s questions, Ed Miliband faced different challenges. He was asked whether Labour demonises high earning individuals, whether they were anti wealth creation, how he will reduce the deficit and why he won’t offer a referendum on EU. Miliband had an uneasy start as Sky News’s Kay Burley reminded him to “keep answers short” and claimed he gave a “politician’s answer”. Unlike Cameron, Miliband faced questions which were significantly more personal. One member of the audience asked, “Would your brother have been a better choice?” stating, “he was more qualified and better positioned.” Miliband seemed amused by this question and responded that he believed at the time he was the right person to lead the country and that is still true. Burley elaborated asking whether they “fell out” and if they “felt strained?”. Miliband responded well to these personal probes saying it was hard for both him and David and their family was healing. He said, “I wouldn’t have gone through all of that if I didn’t believe in these changes for the country.” Burley commented saying, “your poor mother.” To which Miliband said, “she’s a hardy woman.”
When asked why the Labour and Conservative Parties have remained neck and neck when a majority should be an easy accomplishment over the current government, Miliband responded: “I’m not a commentator. I’m worried about this battle for the country and we’ll find out on May the 7th.” Then saying, “oh my God” as Kay Burley told him that was time up.
Both Cameron and Miliband had been asked to point out what they thought the other leader’s best qualities were. Cameron said he admired Miliband’s support in government action against ISIL, while Miliband said Cameron did what was right for the country on equal marriage. Burley asked Miliband, “So you think he’s a nice enough bloke, would you go for a pint?” to which Miliband said, “maybe we’d share a bacon sandwich.”
During Paxman’s interview he questioned Miliband on immigration, the failures of the last Labour government, his energy policies, the Mansion Tax and then came personal attacks on Miliband’s personality and image. Miliband didn’t answer Paxman’s hypothetical questions, saying on immigration limits, ‘I’m not going to pluck a figure out of thin air.’ Paxman called him out on his avoidance of questions since Miliband appeared to continuously make up his own questions for answering instead. Miliband dismissed this and said he was looking at the big picture, arguing he wasn’t going to make specific promises now as decisions will be made once Labour is in government. He told Paxman that he can only offer the “direction of travel”.
At the point where Andrew Neil described Paxman as appearing to wing it, resorting to personally attacking Miliband, he said: “You can’t be immune to what people say about you. People think you’re not tough enough. Are you tough enough?” Miliband responded self-assured saying, “This government proposed action against Syria and the bombing of Syria. I was called into a room with David Cameron and spoke to Obama on the phone. And we said no. I think standing up to the leader of the Free World shows a certain level of toughness. I’m not going to repeat the same mistakes of the 2003 Iraq war. I don’t want to have a rushed war with no strategy. You want to know if I’m tough enough? Hell yes I’m tough enough.”
Following this memorable moment, Paxman continued to probe Miliband about what people say and write in the media about Miliband. This lead Miliband into a passionate dismissal: “I don’t read about myself, do you? It is water off a ducks back. People are entitled to their views. Be yourself. That’s what I am. And people have to decide whether they want that. I don’t care what the newspapers write about me or what the bloke on the tube says about me because what I care about is the British public.”
Evidently not finding this satisfactory, Paxman continued: “People see you as the North London geek. People don’t want you in the most powerful job in the country. People say it should’ve been your brother.” Miliband gets frustrated with justifying his position, saying: “Who cares. Who cares if people see me as a North London geek. I’m a pretty resilient guy. I have surprised people at every turn when they have said I can’t do it. Let people underestimate me. I want to improve things for the ordinary working person and that’s what I came into politics for. This country can be so much better.”
This end to Miliband’s interview demonstrates the very different nature of both interviews. Surely at this point we should ask why Miliband is prone to being attacked as a person? He was continually questioned on the quality of his personality and his ability to be tough. Further to this he was asked about his family which many social media users described as ‘unfair’. Cameron faces less of the personal attacks where it would be equally warranted. This demonstrates how the public differs in its perspective of the two men and indicates the significance of image within this political age.
Notable reactions from various students include dismissive sentiment such as “they’re just all idiots on the TV” and “Cameron made me want to vomit” to some thoughts on what Paxman may have missed out: “Paxman ignored making easy rebuttals against Cameron and should’ve focused on people’s disillusionment with Labour” and “being under pressure helped him but most of his questions were about his brother and his mother.. that’s not politics Mr Paxman.”
Overall, people are calling it a win for Cameron. I think to say this is to look at the interviews and Q&As too simply. People giving the win to Cameron seem to be basing their analysis on who was the least flustered or battered by Paxman. Since the interviews were so different in nature and uneven in regard to the type of questions asked, this analysis doesn’t stand up. While there are times when different questions are suitable, the very nature of the questions should remain in the same realms. In this case it did not and we saw one man questioned on factual evidence and another questioned on his character and his family. Despite the uneven questioning Miliband stood up to Paxman and managed to add his rebuttal. This meant he came across as self-assured and twitter users say this exceeded expectations. The areas in which Miliband appeared to do worse than Cameron was when answering the brutal questioning designed to trip him up in flawed areas of Labour policy and history. Miliband willingly admits his Party’s flaws, saying on immigration, “we got it wrong”. Cameron’s demeanour therefore came off better but this is largely because he didn’t answer questions properly. Miliband was forthright in his answers and withstood the level of scrutiny he was given.
Both leaders took a battering on the whole. The polls say Cameron won a narrow victory but his position looks fragile. Miliband received high approval ratings and seemed to impress social media users but took significant attacks during Paxman’s fierce questioning. It’s worth pointing out that as usual, it seems the real winner here, is Paxman for his robust style and bold persona.