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Leaders' debate: key quotes from General Election TV showdown

By Joe Churcher and Lindsay Watling

Published 02/04/2015

People watch a giant TV screen showing the leaders election debate at Media City on April 2, 2015 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
People watch a giant TV screen showing the leaders election debate at Media City on April 2, 2015 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Prime Minister David Cameron appears on a giant TV screen during the leaders election debate at Media City on April 2, 2015 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
People watch a giant TV screen showing the leaders election debate at Media City on April 2, 2015 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

For the first and only time in this General Election campaign the main party leaders are going head-to-head in a live televised debate.

After giving opening statements they face four questions from a studio audience of around 200 people in Salford over the course of the two-hour event.

Each is being allowed to give an uninterrupted one-minute answer followed by 18 minutes of debate on each question, selected by an experienced editorial panel and which the leaders have not seen in advance.

The seven contenders in the TV debate are - in podium order from left to right - the Green Party's Natalie Bennett, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, Ukip's Nigel Farage, Labour leader Ed Miliband, Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.

Here are some of the key quotes from their responses.

Economy

The leaders were first asked how they believed they would be able to keep their promises of eliminating the deficit without raising certain taxes or making vast cuts to vital public services.

Mr Clegg said: "I think it is all about balance, isn't it? That's why I don't think you should be faced with the stark choice of either cutting too much ... or borrowing too much.

"I think that is a dismal choice, borrowing too much or cutting too much. You need to reduce spending but you also need to make those with the broadest shoulders, the wealthiest, pay a bit more.

"So the Liberal Democrat plan is a very simple one. We will cut less than the Conservatives and we will borrow less than Labour."

Top row, from the left, David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage, and bottom row, from the left, Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett
Top row, from the left, David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage, and bottom row, from the left, Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett

Mr Cameron said: "We have got a plan which is working ... I think what is absolutely crucial here is recognising that what our plan involves is balance.

"We are going to go on investing in the NHS every year as we have done under this government ... we are going to find savings of £1 out of every £100 that the government spends. We need to do that for two more years.

"The alternative to that plan is actually putting up taxes and I don't want to do that. I think if we go back to the tax, the waste, the spending, all the things that got us into a mess in the first place, we wouldn't help working people, we would hurt working people."

Ms Wood said: "We see no reason to put arbitrary deadlines on cutting the deficit. The austerity experiment has failed.

"So much pain for so little gain. The banks have had a bailout, it's time now for the people to have a bailout and it's time for us to invest in public services and job creation."

Mr Farage said the question was right, asking: "How can anyone believe these promises?

"This coalition was put together to reduce the annual deficit to zero. That's why these two guys got together.

"We need to make cuts and there are places we can start. We could easily cut £10 billion a year from the foreign aid budget. We could save another £10 billion a year by not paying over money to Brussels every single day. We could end vanity projects like HS2, that will only benefit a tiny number of people ... we could revisit the Barnett Formula."

Mr Miliband said: "We will cut the deficit every year and we will balance the books. But we will do it in a fairer and a better way than has been tried for the last five years.

"What we will do is first of all we will have fair taxes, so we will reverse the tax cut that he gave to millionaires ... secondly we will have common sense spending reductions.

"So outside key areas like education and health, spending will fall.

"Thirdly we will do something else because your living standards have fallen over the last five years and that hasn't just been bad for working people, it has also meant that government hasn't had the tax revenue coming in."

Ms Bennett said her party was "offering the reversal of austerity, investing in your future".

"We need to raise taxes on those who are not currently paying their share," she said.

"Multinational companies in particular and rich individuals if they paid their share in the world's sixth richest country, we can afford to have a decent society and afford to have decent public services."

Ms Sturgeon said the UK "should have modest spending increases over the next parliament" not cuts.

"It will take slightly longer to eliminate the deficit but the deficit would continue to fall every year.

"But crucially the alternative plan would mean we had resources to invest in infrastructure and skills and innovation."

That "must be better than a blind commitment to austerity that doesn't take an account of the damage being done" she said.

As open debate began, Mr Clegg laid into his former coalition partner, asking Mr Cameron why "the Conservative Party have said they are not going to ask the richest in society to make a single extra penny of contribution to balancing the books through the tax system".

"Just imagine, David Cameron, the chaos in people's lives" if NHS and education spending was cut.

Mr Cameron said the wealthy would be the target of a £5 billion crackdown on tax avoidance and evasion.

He in turn put the spotlight on Mr Miliband, who he said "still thinks the last Labour government didn't tax too much, borrow too much and spend too much".

"And if you don't understand the mistakes of the past, you can't provide the leadership of the future."

The Labour leader told the Prime Minister: "You haven't acted on the tax havens, you haven't acted on the hedge funds.

"You have to ask yourself at home: why won't David Cameron act on those hedge funds? They fund his party."

Mr Cameron said Labour wanted "to put up taxes and cut your pay".

"Going into your monthly payslip and taking your money out because he thinks he can spend that money better than you."

Ms Sturgeon said it was "really ironic hearing Nick Clegg and David Cameron arguing when they have been hand in glove imposing austerity on these people for the last five years".

As debate became increasingly fraught, Mr Farage shouted "What's going on here? Get real, please" and accused all his rivals of either ignoring the "massive problem" of the deficit or failing to deal with it in government.

NHS

In debate on the NHS, Mr Farage clashed with Ms Wood over the issue of health tourism.

The Ukip leader said: "Here's a fact, and I am sure the other people here will be mortified that I dare to talk about it. There are 7,000 diagnoses in this country every year for people who are HIV positive. It's not a good place for any of them to be, I know.

"Sixty per cent of them are not British nationals. They can come into Britain from anywhere in the world and get diagnosed with HIV and get the retro-viral drugs that cost up to £25,000 per year per patient.

"I know there are some horrible things happening in many parts of the world, but what we need to do is put the NHS there for British people and families, who in many cases have paid into the system for decades."

Ms Wood responded: "This kind of scaremongering is dangerous, it divides communities and it creates stigma to people who are ill, and I think you ought to be ashamed of yourself."

Mr Farage replied: "Well, it's true. I'm sorry, we've got to put our own people first."

The leaders were next asked how they would ensure long-term funding for the NHS while keeping it as a public service accessible to all.

Mr Farage said he believed in the NHS and that he had needed it more than most people, having been in "so many scrapes" in his life.

He added: "This whole question of how we can fund the NHS with a population that is rapidly rising, that is ageing, it's a huge question.

"We have decided the best way to do it is to run it efficiently and run it as a public service ... but to recognise there has been a 48% growth in middle management since 1998."

He said he did not agree with privatisation and that Ukip would put in an extra £3 billion of funding from EU savings. He also pledged to end hospital parking charges.

Ms Sturgeon called the NHS the "most precious" public service the nation has.

She added: "In Scotland we have protected the budget of the NHS and we will always do so. We also believe passionately that the NHS should always be run as a public service, not for private profit.

"That's why we oppose the privatisation that is happening in England. We oppose it in principle but also because it poses a risk in the long term to Scotland's budget.

"The best thing we can do for the NHS is to end austerity ... anybody that tells you that cutting the social care budget or the welfare budget is good for the NHS is wrong."

Ms Bennett said there was a "race" towards setting up the structures for privatisation within the NHS, adding: "Profit motive should have no place in healthcare."

She went on: "We are not happy with 5% of money that is supposed to be for healthcare going in profits, we want 0% going in profits.

"What we need to do is take the whole market mechanism out of the NHS."

She also called for free prescriptions, free eye care and free dental.

Mr Clegg asked the leaders to put their money where their hearts are.

He added: "The NHS doesn't need warm words. It needs hard cash ... the Liberal Democrats have a plan about how to find that."

Ms Wood said the NHS in Wales faced two threats - from continued austerity cuts and centralisation under Labour in Wales. She said she would fund it from general taxation.

She added: "Plaid Cymru wants to recruit and attract an additional thousand doctors into the NHS to bring us up to the same level as the rest of the UK. At the moment, we are way behind."

Mr Miliband said he was "deeply concerned" about the crisis in the NHS and told viewers Labour would get money from a mansion tax, from hedge funds engaging in tax avoidance and from the tobacco companies.

He added: "It's not just more staff. It is also joining up services from home to hospital."

Mr Cameron said the NHS was the "most important national institution and national public service that we have". He also told viewers he would not forget what he had received as the father of a disabled son in terms of "unbelievable" care and support.

He added: "I just want that for every family and everyone in our country.

"I want the money spent on patient care ... it is key we keep a strong economy in order to fund a stronger NHS."

Mr Farage said there were "massive savings" to be made for public services by cutting foreign aid. But Ms Bennett retorted that Greens would lift aid spending from 0.7% to 1% of GDP "because we need a more stable world, and that means tackling hunger and disease".

Mr Miliband said Labour would reduce the deficit every year, adding: "Cuts will have to come, but we can do it in a balanced way and a fair way."

In direct clashes, Mr Cameron brought up Mr Miliband's reported intent to "weaponise" the health service as a political issue and cited the Mid Staffs scandal as proof of Labour's mismanagement.

"For most of us, the NHS is a service for our families, not a political weapon," he said.

He said his Government inherited from Labour "a culture too often of cover-up".

"Just 60 miles from where we are is the Mid Staffords hospital and we all remember what we uncovered with that public inquiry - that elderly people were being left uncared for, some of them drinking out of water vases because they weren't being looked after because the target culture was running rampant.

"We have changed that and we have made sure there are more nurses on wards, more doctors in charge and standards are going up".

Mr Miliband retorted: "I would say to everybody at home: use your vote in this election as a weapon to fight for the future of our National Health Service because it has to be rescued from you, David.

"You have failed the British people, you have broken your bond of trust on the National Health Service. They believed you were another kind of Conservative but it has gone backwards on your watch and they won't trust you again."

Mr Cameron said there were "more doctors, more nurses, more people being treated" and said Labour had called extra investment "irresponsible".

Ms Bennett said 800,000 over-65s were denied the care they needed and said her party was "calling for free social care for the over-65s provided to all the people who need it".

Debating the NHS, Ms Sturgeon insisted "we can invest in the health service without cutting welfare", while Ms Wood said "the private sector has no role in the public health service". Ms Bennett said privatisation in the NHS was causing "huge damage" and risking a US-style health service.

But Mr Clegg said it was "simply not true that there is some great push towards privatisation" of health under the coalition.

Mr Miliband addressed Mr Cameron directly on his promises at the 2010 election to have no top-down reorganisation of the NHS and no going back to long waiting times.

"I don't think people will take seriously your promises on the NHS because you have broken all the promises you made at the last general election," Mr Miliband told the Prime Minister.

But Mr Cameron said he had boosted numbers of doctors and nurses and cut managers, saying: "I want doctors with stethoscopes not bureaucrats with clipboards."

Immigration

The leaders were also asked about immigration.

Ms Bennett said many of the problems people associate with immigration were actually caused by government "failures".

Mr Cameron agreed there were benefits from immigration.

He added: "Nigel is saying there is nothing we can do inside the EU so just give up and leave. Ed seems to be saying he doesn't want to renegotiate anything in Europe ... I say get stuck in."

Mr Farage said German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the "real boss" in Europe and that she had ruled out re-negotiation on free movement of people.

Mr Cameron said he did not accept that and told Mr Farage to look at his record, to which the Ukip leader replied: "I have."

The Prime Minister added: "You (Nigel) are just a back door to a Labour government."

Mr Miliband said Mr Cameron had marginalised Britain in Europe. He added: "I don't think our place lies outside the EU. I think that would be a disaster for jobs, a disaster for families and business."

Mr Clegg said: "Freedom of movement around the EU should never be the same as freedom to claim (benefits). We have to split these two."

He also pointed out that migration was a "two-way street" and said it was important to provide British youngsters with adequate training so they are able to do the jobs.

Mr Cameron said: "It is not simply about what happens in Europe ... there are changes you can make if you make this a priority."

Ms Sturgeon said diversity was one of the nation's great strengths and criticised the abolition of the post-study work visa.

She added: "That is hurting our universities ... But it also means we deprive ourselves of the economic contribution of young foreign students we have helped to educate here. It makes no sense."

Mr Miliband said he would control immigration both by blocking migrants from benefits for two years and by cracking down on unscrupulous employers paying foreign nationals below the minimum wage.

He said: "If you want a party that will cut Britain off from the rest of the world, that's not me ... But if you want a party with controls over immigration, that's what I offer."

Ms Sturgeon acknowledged that some parts of the UK were experiencing strain in the public sector and housing due to immigration, but added: "The answer is investing more in homes and public services and enforcing a decent minimum wage, not scapegoating immigrants."

She said the Westminster parties were "driven by fear of Ukip, rather than a rational debate" and said: "Let's make sure it's a decent and civilised debate, not one driven by the intolerance of Nigel Farage."

Mr Cameron said: "We do need immigration that's controlled and fair. In recent decades it's been too high and I want to see it come down."

Mr Farage responded: "As members of the EU, what can we do to control immigration? Let me tell you - nothing."

Mr Clegg insisted: "I will not spread fear about immigration. There is good immigration and bad immigration. We should remain a decent, open-hearted, generous-minded nation who welcome people who want to come here and play by the rules ... I want Britain to be open for business, not open for abuse."

Mr Farage said: "Since World War Two we have operated with net migration into Britain at an average of about 30,000 a year. It is now net 300,000 people a year.

"It is 10 times anything this country has had to deal with since 1945 and what it has meant is that for ordinary folk, on the minimum wage or not very high salaries, their wages have been compressed.

"It is the ordinary people of Britain who have paid a very high price for the big corporate employers who have benefited."

Mr Clegg hit back: "Nigel Farage talks about 'remember history'. The Farage family were foreigners once. I'm married to a foreigner. You are married to a foreigner.

"All I'm saying is stop bad immigration but don't paint everybody with the same brush."

In increasingly heated exchanges, Mr Farage shouted over the Liberal Democrat leader: "How? How? How?

"Joan's question is how do you control immigration as an EU member. Be honest with people. We can't. Tell them the truth."

He dismissed as "irrelevant" Mr Clegg's assertion that EU freedom of movement "should not be the same as freedom to claim".

Mr Miliband said ending "exploitative" zero-hours contracts was "an absolutely crucial part of this immigration debate because you have got to create security for the working families".

The Tory leader retorted: "When he was in the Cabinet about half a million people lost their jobs so never mind zero-hours; with Ed there'd be zero jobs."

EU referendum

On the EU he said his position was "stay in, fight, get a better deal".

"The irony of Nigel's position is if people vote for him they end up with Miliband and they get no referendum, no renegotiation."

Both Ms Wood and Ms Sturgeon pressed the main party leaders to commit to holding separate votes in each nation of the UK - and only exit if all were agreed.

The SNP leader said it was vital to make sure "none of us can be dragged out against our will".

Ms Bennett said the Greens backed an in/out EU referendum "but we would be campaigning very strongly to stay in Europe because we believe there are certain decisions that should be made at that level" such as environmental standards and workers' rights.

But the EU had to be "much less centralised", she said.

Making closing statements, Ms Sturgeon said: "Tonight the choice at this election has been clear: you can vote for the same old parties and get the same old politics - more cuts and more misguided priorities; or you can vote for something different, better and more progressive.

"None of us can afford more austerity; none of us can afford an additional £30 billion of cuts and none of us can afford the £100 billion the Tories, Labour and Liberals intend to spend on new nuclear weapons.

"Their priorities are wrong but they won't pay the price; it will be ordinary people across the country who will pay the price."

She went on: "To people in Scotland I say: vote SNP for a louder voice for Scotland. To people elsewhere I say: ours will be a voice to help bring about change for you too."

Final question

The final question came from a 25-year-old graduate who asked what the parties would do for the younger generation to make them optimistic about their futures.

Mr Miliband said he did not want young people "drowning in debt" after university. He added: "I believe in the promise of Britain that the next generation does better than the last."

Mr Cameron said the most important thing for young people was good jobs. He also spoke about the party's starter homes policy aimed at ensuring housing is affordable.

Ms Bennett said education should be funded by a progressive taxation system. She also promised to cut university fees to zero, pay off student loan company debts and raise the minimum wage to £10 an hour by 2020.

Mr Clegg conceded he "infamously" could not put into practice his party's policy on tuition fees, but added: "We did the next best thing, we got the fairest deal possible and thankfully now there are more young people going to university."

Ms Sturgeon said it was "shameful" for any politician to take away from others what they themselves had benefited from.

She said: "I grew up in a working-class family. I would not be standing here as first minister of Scotland without the free education I had access to. As a politician now, I have no right to take that same entitlement away from the next generation of young people."

Mr Farage lamented the abolition of grammar schools, saying it had "pulled up the ladder" on tens of thousands of young men and women every year who would have done better had they gone to one.

Mr Cameron said education had been "opened up" over the past five years and called free schools "great institutions".

The Prime Minister was interrupted by Mr Clegg who accused him of planning to cut more than £3 billion out of the schools budget.

Mr Cameron hit back: "We sat in the Cabinet room together, we took difficult decisions together. I defend all of the decisions we took and I think your sort of pick and mix approach really is not ..."

Mr Miliband then joined in saying: "I think they are both blaming each other and they are both right."

He also attacked Mr Clegg for his "broken promise" on tuition fees saying he had betrayed young people. At that point the Liberal Democrat leader criticised his "pious stance" and asked him to apologise for "crashing" the economy.

Mr Miliband said Labour had already accepted it got it wrong on bank regulation.

Ms Bennett said free schools should be taken back under local authority control because the education system needed to be based on cooperation, not competition. He also said it was time to move away from exams as a means of assessment and for pupils to be taught subjects such as first aid and cooking.

Closing statements

Farage

Mr Farage said in his final statement that the other leaders had shown they were "all the same".

"What you have seen tonight is the politically correct political class. They are very keen to be popular on the international stage. They don't understand the thoughts, hopes and aspirations of ordinary people in this country.

"They are detached. Most of them have never had a job in their lives.

"What we represent in Ukip is plain-spoken patriotism. We believe in this country, we believe in its people, we think Britain can be a lot better than this.

"If you want things to be shaken up and to change properly, you've got to put more Ukip MPs in Westminster."

He insisted Ukip can "outshine all expectations on May 7", adding: "Let's do it."

Milliband

Mr Miliband declared: "I believe that it is when working people succeed that Britain succeeds.

"If you believe that too, I ask for your support and let's bring the change that Britain needs."

He said: "If I am prime minister I will make sure we reward the hard work of everybody in our country, not just those who get the six-figure bonuses.

"If I am prime minister, I will take on the energy companies that are ripping you off.

"If I am prime minister, everyone will play by the same rules; we won't give the green light to tax avoidance.

"And if I am prime minister, we will cut the deficit every year and balance the books but we will protect health and education."

Wood

Ms Wood said: "Austerity is not inevitable; it is a choice.

"For a stronger, more prosperous, greener Wales. For a Wales that counts. For a devolution and financial settlement that is no longer second rate, give your vote to Plaid Cymru.

"For Wales to be strong - like Scotland - Plaid Cymru must be strong."

Clegg

Mr Clegg began by thanking the audience and viewers "for sitting through this two-hour political marathon".

He concluded: "When you vote, make sure you do what is right for you and your family, make sure that you do what's right for our country, but above all make sure that we don't lurch this way or that.

"Make sure we don't borrow too much on the one hand or cut too much on the other. In other words, when you vote, make sure we keep our country stable, strong and fair."

"That is the only way that we can create the society that I imagine we all want: a society where we have a stronger economy and a fairer society where there is opportunity for everyone."

Cameron

Mr Cameron had the last word in the debate, giving the final statement, in which he told voters: "What my plan is about is basically one word - security. Security for you, for your family, for our country.

"This is an amazing country and we are on our way back. There's a fundamental choice at this election. Stick with the plan, and with the team who brought that plan, because it's working and it's helping. Or put it all at risk by the people who gave us the spending, the debt, the taxes and the waste.

"I say let's stick to the plan that's working, let's not go back to square one, let's finish the job we started."

Further reading

DUP warns over 'captive' government  

Ed Miliband on Absolute Radio: Is this the interview that could change the course of the election in the Labour leader's favour?

Business groups alarmed by Tory plans for huge cuts in Department for Business Innovation and Skills

One in five of the business people who signed pro-Tory letter were given honours by David Cameron and one third are Tory donors

Nick Clegg could lose Sheffield Hallam seat: Labour's plan to 'decapitate' Lib Dems at General Election is working  

key points from David Cameron and Ed Miliband TV clash

Ed Miliband was ahead on personality, says Nigel Farage

Ed Miliband promises to put ban on zero-hour contracts

David Cameron denies Samantha was behind his decision not to serve third term

Leaders are accused of deception over spending cuts

Russell's brand of politics is more in touch with voters

Tories 'will give NHS extra £8bn'

PM targets 'instinctive Tories'  

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