The leaders of seven British political parties will line up Thursday for a televised debate that each hopes will change the course of the campaign for the May 7 general election.
While most eyes will be on Prime Minister David Cameron, opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K. Independence Party, the two-hour broadcast could also boost the chances of the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the Scottish National Party and the Welsh nationalists, Plaid Cymru. It’s the only full-scale debate before the election.
“We’ve still got five weeks to go, so it will not cast the same shadow over polling day as the debates did in 2010,” Andrew Hawkins, chairman of polling company ComRes, said in an interview. “But it’s going to set the mood music and momentum as we go into the Easter break and out the other side.”
The debate is the only one agreed to by Cameron, who resisted attempts to hold a series of confrontations between the main party leaders as happened in the weeks before voting in 2010. Labour and Cameron’s Conservatives are neck-and-neck in the election campaign, with polls suggesting neither will be able to govern without the support of smaller parties in an increasingly fractured British political landscape.
The leaders will make short opening and closing statements and then have one minute each to answer questions from the audience before a general discussion, lasting as much as 18 minutes on each topic. The debate, which will be broadcast by ITV, starts at 8 p.m.
It’s taking place in Salford, part of the Manchester urban area in northwest England that contains several swing seats and has seen recent campaign visits by both Cameron and Miliband.
Farage was installed as favorite to come out top of a poll of viewers by ComRes after the debate asking who performed best. Farage was quoted Wednesday by bookmaker William Hill Plc at 13-8, meaning a successful 8-pound bet wins 11 pounds.
Cameron and Miliband were at 3-1, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon at 7-1, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg 9-1 and the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood, of Plaid Cymru, both at 20-1, William Hill said in an e-mailed statement.
Cameron argued for minor parties to be involved in the debate to dilute the impact of Farage, whose populist style saw him come out as winner in two broadcast debates on Europe with Clegg in 2014. The Tories have lost support to UKIP, which seeks withdrawal from the European Union and curbs on immigration. Farage’s party is now the third-most popular, according to opinion polls.
Cameron was found in a snap poll to have won the first television event of the campaign on March 26, which saw the prime minister and Miliband interviewed by veteran news anchor Jeremy Paxman and asked questions by a studio audience. Surveys showed that the polls after the debates and subsequent media coverage in 2010 had more of an effect on the campaign than the broadcasts themselves, ComRes’s Hawkins said.
“They had a huge impact because of the post-match analysis,” he said. “You don’t have to watch a debate to be affected by it. Simply switching on the TV news and seeing that someone won and someone lost makes a difference; it reinforces perceptions about the leaders.”
The 2010 debates boosted Clegg’s profile and the Liberal Democrats’ poll ratings, though their support slipped back by election day.
The party leaders have been taking time out of campaigning to prepare for the debate, with Ed Miliband bringing in Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former director of communications, to help coach him and Stewart Wood, one of his closest advisers, playing the role of Clegg in rehearsals.
Farage, who styles himself as being outside the political establishment, has been preparing “rigorously,” UKIP’s economy spokesman, Patrick O’Flynn, told reporters Wednesday.