Election 2015: party leaders prepare for first TV debate – live

Updated: 00:00 GMT, Jan 1, 1970 | Published: 11:04 GMT, Apr 2, 2015 |

The contest, announced after weeks of wrangling, will be the only time Conservative PM David Cameron and Labour’s Ed Miliband face one another in a debate before polling day. The Lib Dems, SNP, UKIP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens will also take part. Norman Smith, BBC assistant political editor, said the stakes were in a way highest for Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband. He said the smaller parties had less to lose, but tonight’s debate would be a “visible symbolic demonstration of the death of two-party politics.” Elsewhere on Thursday, with 35 days before polling day: Labour claimed more than 1,000 Sure Start centres face being axed under a Conservative government. Chancellor George Osborne will challenge Labour to commit to phase two of the HS2 rail scheme, claiming shadow chancellor Ed Balls has threatened to cancel it.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he wanted to see fewer than 50,000 people coming in to the UK per year, but said he would not set a cap on net migration.  Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown will claim the SNP’s spending plans would “break the hearts of the poor. “The SNP’s John Swinney said Labour support “Tory-style cuts”. The Muslim Council of Britain urged Muslim voters to press candidates to commit to tackling Islamophobia. The election debate, which will also be shown live on the BBC News channel and streamed on the online election live page, will be moderated by Julie Etchingham. The debate will be shown on ITV from 20:00 to 22:00 BST. It takes place at Media City in Salford with a studio audience of about 200 people

After a draw for podium places, the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett will take the left-hand position followed, from left to right, by Mr Clegg for the Liberal Democrats, UKIP’s Nigel Farage, Mr Miliband, Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and Mr Cameron. Ms Bennett will speak first in the opening statements of the debate while Mr Cameron will speak last. Each leader will be allowed to give an uninterrupted one-minute answer to questions posed by members of the studio audience. There will then be up to 18 minutes of debate on each question; in all four “substantial election questions” will be addressed. Leaders will not see the questions in advance and an “experienced editorial panel” will select them. There had been doubt over whether a debate between leaders – first held in 2010 when then PM Gordon Brown, Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg participated in three events – would be repeated before the 7 May poll.

Mr Cameron had rejected the initial proposals because they did not include the Greens, and also said any debate should take place after the start of the campaign on 30 March. The final schedule also included a live question and answer programme featuring David Cameron and Ed Miliband appearing separately, shown on on Channel 4 and Sky News last week, and a BBC debate involving opposition party leaders, moderated by David Dimbleby on 16 April. There will also be a special Question Time on BBC One, a week before polling day, with Mr Cameron, Mr Miliband and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg appearing separately to answer questions from a studio audience. The Democratic Unionist Party, which has eight MPs, has strongly criticised its exclusion from the programme.

Who won? That is the question everyone will ask at 10pm tonight, so before anyone answers perhaps we should pause and ask something else: what on earth does winning a TV debate really mean? And how will we know? Should we take seriously the instant polls of the few who choose to watch all two hours of seven party leaders arguing on the eve of the Easter holidays? Maybe not. So, how about the verdict of Twitter or Facebook? Ditto. Social media lends a loudhailer to the committed, the partisan and organised. What then about the sage words of the commentariat as they emerge from the hothouse of the “spin room”? Cramming political journalists, spin doctors and live cameras into a room is the best possible guarantee that the media “pack” will produce its own, not particularly reliable, conventional wisdom.

What really matters is the judgement of those who have yet to decide how to vote – but we cannot ignore all of the above for one fundamental reason. Most voters – perhaps particularly the “undecideds” – will come to a view of who won without actually having watched any of the debate at all. Many others will have watched for just a few minutes. That is why the spin doctors try so hard to establish that their leader came out on top. That is why the selection of the clips that make it onto news broadcasts or onto You Tube or Facebook are so important.

Read Nick’s full blog here

The Liberal Democrats sad the likelihood of a hung Parliament made it important for people to see seven leaders side by side. “This debate matters because you get to choose who you want walking through the front door of Downing Street with David Cameron or Ed Miliband,” a party spokesman said. “So the question is: which leader do you want influencing the future of Britain?”

Nick Clegg told LBC: “I’m looking forward to it… I always look forward to any opportunity to tell my side of the story.” Nicola Sturgeon said the “historic” debate would show the “mould of two and three-party politics at Westminster has been broken”. Nigel Farage said: “I hope the truth comes out on some issues, I shall be arguing and asking the PM and others will they please admit that as members of the EU we can not have an immigration policy of any kind at all.”

 ‘Change the country’

David Cameron spent most of yesterday preparing for the debate and will continue his preparations after a campaign visit this morning, Conservative campaign correspondent Carole Walker said. His aides point out that he already has experience from Prime Minister’s Questions and public meetings, our correspondent adds.

Ed Miliband said the debate would be a chance to “talk directly to the British people”. He added: “To make a simple case – a case for change. Because I believe it is only when working people succeed that Britain succeeds.” Ahead of the debate, Mr Farage also told Today he would not set a cap on net migration.

Nigel Farage’s interview with the Today programme

“You cannot have a cap for net migration because you cannot as a government stop people leaving the country,” he said. But asked about how many he wants to come in, he said: “It is below 50,000 a year. Simple as that.”