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Who won the Question Time election debate?

01 May

The leaders of the three main parties faced tough questions from an audience on last night's Question Time special, in the last televised debate before the election.

A snap poll declared David Cameron the winner, with Ed Miliband trailing second and Nick Clegg last – but not all of the political pundits agreed with that assessment.  "As you might expect, assessing the "winner" of BBC Question Time's leaders special depends very much on the political line taken by the paper you read," says the BBC.

Here's what the political commentators thought:

David Cameron

The Prime Minister was mocked by The Guardian's Gaby Hinsliff for brandishing his "there's no money left" note left by Labour minister Liam Byrne in 2010. She accuses him of "whipping it from his pocket with the air of a kid hoping to get off double PE." He also evaded the crucial question on cuts to child benefits. "That won't go unnoticed," she said.

But the Daily Mail's James Slack disagrees, arguing that Cameron gave a strong and passionate performance, despite hostile questions from the audience. "He replied forcefully but courteously. [That was] comfortably his best performance of the three TV debates," he concludes.

Ed Miliband

Miliband’s strong rhetoric on ruling out a future coalition with the SNP was praised by the Daily Telegraph's Mary Riddell. "It made him sound decisive," she said. "He sounded measured and cooler than Cameron. No sweaty upper lip, which is good."

But the Labour leader was "savaged" by the audience for "lying" as he refused to accept that the previous Labour government spent too much, says The Times. "At the end of his 30-minute ordeal, Mr Miliband stumbled as he left the stage, giving the cameras an apt image for his encounter with sceptical voters," says the newspaper.

Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg was the surprise winner of the "sort-of-not-really-debate", says Ian Dunt, editor at politics.co.uk. He argues that unlike the leaders of the two main parties, Clegg didn't talk down to his audience and avoided Miliband's "excruciating 'what's your name'" tactic. "Performance-wise, the Lib Dem leader went up there with the worst hand – and played it best. It will change nothing, but he deserves credit where it's due."

Clegg also topped approval ratings on Twitter, the Press Association reports.

But the Telegraph's James Kirkup disagrees, arguing that Clegg sounded less like a politician seeking re-election, and more like one "trying to define his place in history, writing the obituary for his career before the voters get the chance to do so."

The audience

The one point on which newspaper pundits agree was that the audience in Leeds was the real star of the programme. The majority were supporters of the three parties, while a quarter were undecided voters. The leaders found themselves "well and truly stumped by a succession of pointedly intelligent questions from the audience," says The Guardian.

Question Time election debate: highlights of the final TV showdow

30 April

A week before the general election, the three main party leaders are facing David Dimbleby and a Question Time audience in the final UK-wide television set-piece of the campaign.

Conservative leader David Cameron, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and Labour leader Ed Miliband will take questions from a live studio audience in the BBC Question Time Election Special at 8pm, exactly a week before polling day. Each in turn will answer questions from the audience in Leeds Town Hall, but the three will not appear on the stage together.

General Election 2015: who will win?

9.30pm - the verdict: Both Labour and the Conservatives are quick to declare their man "clearly the winner", but a snap ICM poll suggests that Cameron came out in front. Of those surveyed, 44 per cent named him the winner, compared with 38 per cent for Miliband and 19 per cent for Clegg. Ed Miliband was talked about more on Twitter, a BBC analysis suggests, which may have resulted from his decision to rule out any "deal" with the SNP - or his stumble as he left the platform. The Guardian declares it a score draw. "No one bombed tonight," says its political commentator, Andrew Sparrow. "Overall, it has been at least 60 minutes of good TV, but this does not feel like an event that is going to shift perceptions."

Most political analysts agree that the SNP - not present for the debate - provided the most significant moment of the evening. The party's deputy leader has come out fighting after Miliband said he would rather give up the opportunity to govern than rely on a deal with the SNP. "If Ed Miliband is saying that he would rather let the Tories back into government than work with the SNP to keep them out," said Stewart Hosie, "people in Scotland and indeed elsewhere in the UK would never forgive the Labour Party."

9pm: Nick Clegg has to begin by defending his decision to vote for increased tuition fees, and then to defend his willingness to go into a coalition at all. It was a tough decision, he says, but he is proud to have stepped forward in the interests of the country. "We could have been Greece," he says, without the actions of the coalition government.

After debate about education policy, during which Clegg says we should spend more on education, the next questioner takes a direct approach. "Have you got plans for a new job after next week when you become unemployed and your party becomes an irrelevance," he asks. "Charming," Clegg replies. "No I don't."

The debate gets bogged down as the audience returns to the question of whether Clegg and the Lib Dems should have gone into coalition. "Air is hissing out of the balloon with Nick Clegg," tweets Sky's Adam Boulton.

The most surprising claim of the evening comes from an audience member who says that eight countries are about to leave the EU. "It's a possibility," he says. "Everything's a possibility," Clegg replies, but he can't envisage that set of circumstances, or any other that would persuade him that leaving the EU was a good idea. The audience is quiet, and Boulton says that some in the spin room have started to talk among themselves.

As the evening draws to a close, The Independent declares the "tenacious" audience to be the winners. "It seems like they gave everybody an equally hard time."

And the Lib Dem leader? "Mr Clegg sounded less like a politician seeking election than one trying to define his place in history," says the Telegraph. He was "writing the obituary for his career before the voters get the chance to do so".

8.30pm: Ed Miliband is immediately asked about the "no money left" letter Cameron produced. He says that Labour made mistakes on banking regulation, but insists that the recession was caused by a global financial crisis. The second questioner returns to the letter. Anyone in the corporate sector who, like Ed Balls, described it as a joke, would be fired, she says. The Times's comment editor is impressed by the questioner. "That Leeds businesswoman is BRILLIANT," he tweets. The Independent says Miliband is having a "pretty rough time".

Questioning turns to the SNP and the prospect of a coalition. Miliband says he "doesn't want to sound like the other bloke", but insists that he too is trying to win a majority. "The problem is you do sound a lot like the other bloke," says a member of the audience. In response, Miliband rules out not only a coalition, but also a "deal" with the SNP. "I suspect that Miliband's specific answers on the deals with the SNP will have the greatest bearing on future history of this evening," says the Financial Times's Giles Wilkes.

The Guardian's Alan Travis notes that Miliband "did not rule out a vote by vote arrangement which could see the SNP keeping a minority Labour government on the road. Trident could get through on the votes of Tory MPs as could deeper cuts than the SNP want in a Labour budget."

The hostile questioning continues on welfare, zero-hours contracts and immigration. "This is proving to be a tough crowd for Ed Miliband as he's confronted by sceptical Yorkshire businessmen and women," says the BBC's Nick Robinson. "Public beat pros again."

The Guardian's verdict: "He interacted more with the audience [than Cameron did], which grated sometimes, but he was also funnier, and overall he was confident and robust."

8pm: David Cameron gets off to a bold but slightly confusing start. Asked to deny today's reports that he would cut child benefit and tax credit, he replies, "No, I don't want to do that." He clarifies: he does want to deny today's reports and he does not want to cut child benefit. But, he says, he also wants to cut the deficit, and difficult decisions will have to be made. 

The early exchanges are dominated by talk of benefits and the fear of further spending cuts. To back up his argument that the country is still paying for Labour's mistakes, Cameron produces the note left by Labour minister Liam Byrne: "I'm afraid to tell you there's no money left."

Some commentators detect a new energy in the PM. "Cameron has clearly drunk the 5 espressos Crosby gave him," tweets the Fabian Society's Marcus Roberts. "But I worry that in his need to show 'passion' he'll run over his questioners."

The Independent says Cameron is getting some support. "The questions so far are hostile from the audience, but applause is significant," it says. 

The Telegraph agrees. When one audience member asks why Cameron wouldn't debate Ed Miliband, the paper's live blogger suggests that "this audience is probably giving Mr Cameron a harder time than the Labour leader would". He continues: "These people are fierce. I suspect we'll hear a lot from Conservatives after the event about audience composition and bias."

The questioning ends with sustained attempts to persuade Cameron to elaborate on what compromises he would make in the event of a hung parliament. He refuses, insisting that he is going all-out to win. "But if we fall short, I will do the right thing for the country," he says. "I did last time."

The Telegraph's verdict: "All Mr Cameron's personal strengths were on show, including some of the emotion and energy he didn't exhibit in earlier events. But his party's weak spots were visible too" - including his refusal to spell out where cuts would fall.

Question time election special: how it works

What's the format?

Instead of the usual Question Time panel format, each of the three leaders will appear separately on stage for 30 minutes to take questions from the audience in Leeds. Cameron will be quizzed first, followed by Miliband and then Clegg. Later in the evening, viewers in England will be able to watch 'Election 2015: Ask Nigel Farage' on BBC One. The Ukip leader will answer voters' questions in Birmingham for half an hour from 10.50pm in a show hosted by Daily Politics presenter Jo Coburn. On BBC One Scotland at 9.30pm, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon will be in Glasgow taking questions from a studio audience. Glenn Campbell, who moderated the second Scottish independence debate between Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond in the city last August, will be hosting. Meanwhile, Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood will take questions in Cardiff at 10.40pm on BBC One Wales.

Why are the leaders taking questions separately?

Cameron has refused to go head-to-head with Miliband, with political commentators suggesting that the Prime Minister has nothing to gain and everything to lose by facing the opposition leader one-to-one. Miliband again challenged Cameron to a proper debate earlier this week. He noted that they would both be on the same channel, on the same evening, with the same audience and moderator on Thursday night. "But we are going to be debating back-to-back rather than face-to-face because he doesn't want to be on at the same time as me," he said.

What can we expect?

Tonight, the three leaders will each have 30 minutes to "shift negative public perceptions about them", says Sky News. "David Cameron is seen as out of touch, Ed Miliband is seen as uncharismatic and a bit dull and Nick Clegg is seen as weak and not someone who sticks to what he believes in," Yougov's Joe Twyman tells Sky. "This is a problem they've all got to address with so little time left until election day."

Stephen Coleman, professor of political communication at the University of Leeds, says the leaders will have to convince people they are in touch with their concerns. Voters will be asking "Were my values touched by any of this?", he says, not remembering the precise statistical details of policy. Paul Goodman at Conservative Home says this is the only 2015 television event that could move the election "on its axis", but adds that "even that is unlikely".

That's not to say that sparks won't fly. The live show comes amid two rows: one over the Tories' plans for welfare spending and another over the BBC's choice in audience for the programme. Lib Dem Danny Alexander has challenged Cameron to explain in detail how he will cut £12bn from the welfare budget, while the BBC has been accused of "unashamed left-wing bias".

How can I watch it?

The Question Time special will be broadcast on BBC One and BBC News Channel live from 8pm to 9.30pm. The other programmes will also be broadcast on the BBC News Channel and on BBC Parliament.

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