By Steven Fielding
In one corner, the old school pro, whose reputation precedes them and who can do no more than repeat their long-established, hammy, act. In the other, a plucky outsider many ridicule for being amateurish and simply not up to the job.
But enough of Jeremy Paxman and Kay Burley, who hosted The Battle for Number 10 last night.
The first television encounter of this election was defined by what it was not. It was not a debate – David Cameron and Ed Miliband instead traded questions with Paxman and a docile studio audience. It was not a game-changer – too few will have watched it for that. And it did not, much, apparently, alter the perceptions of those viewers who did tune into Channel 4 or Sky.
An instant ICM poll suggests that only 8 per cent changed their party allegiances as a result of watching the two men. On the basis that two million did watch – we have yet to get the actual figures but that is a reasonable assumption – then that means about 160,000 viewers switched party, in Labour’s favour by about 2:1. But most of those polled thought Cameron did best, by 54 per cent to Miliband’s 46 per cent.
Those who watched would have seen Miliband coming out fighting. As the insurgent candidate he likes to be, his answers were sometimes messy but his evangelical style was passionate and seemingly authentic. He might have raised some questions in a few minds accustomed to the Mr Bean image in which carapace the right-wing media has imprisoned him.
Cameron on the other hand, was the stylised, smooth and slick PR man he is – and with whom audiences would already have been familiar. Temporarily disconcerted by Paxman’s direct and impertinent questions, he resumed his toe-curling Posh Man Talking To The Plebs act when allowed to engage with the audience. Apparently it’s an act some Plebs like.
If they want a ‘Leader’ – and Cameron does a fair impression of one – then the Prime Minister will not have been harmed much by last night. Miliband will hope that voters will want something more, or different.
But Jeremy was the real winner and Kay the clear loser of the night. Paxman reminded viewers of the entertaining interviewer he used to be. Burley’s inconsistent performance will however have left many wondering if she was in danger of being put on a zero-hours contract, and creating a vacancy at Sky for some of those 700,000 currently languishing in that sorry state.
Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History and Director of the Centre for British Politics at the University of Nottingham. This article first appeared in University of Nottingham’s News Room blog located here.