Sunak And Starmer's First TV Debate: A Tetchy Pmqs Where No One Dared Mention The F-Word

(MENAFN- The Conversation) As it turned out, after stealing the limelight on the day, the man most notable by his absence at the first leaders' TV debate of the 2024 election campaign was never even mentioned by name. Only in his closing statement did the prime Minister find it necessary to aim an indirect blow at Nigel Farage, telling his ITV audience that a vote for any party other than the Conservatives would amount to a vote for Labour.

Since their inception in 2010, these encounters on live TV have become familiar fixtures of the electoral ordeal, for leaders, advisers and viewers alike. They remain highly newsworthy, chiefly because Britain's general elections are, even among people who understand the parliamentary system, regarded as“presidential” in nature. The focus is on the party leaders at every opportunity.

The first TV debate in 2010 set the trend for future contests. The Liberal Democrat leader at the time, Nick Clegg, was regarded as the clear winner, not least because, unlike Conservative leader David Cameron and Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, he looked into the camera when giving his answers. Yet research has shown the ensuing“Cleggmania” had no discernable effect on the election outcome .

Leader debates, in short, are almost always over-hyped non-events. On this occasion, the feeling of anti-climax was reinforced by a greater sense than usual that what we were tuning into was merely another instalment of the weekly parliamentary session of prime minister's questions (PMQs), albeit with a better behaved audience. The prime minister exploited the occasion to hold the opposition leader to account for things he might, or might not, do in the future.

In particular, Sunak repeatedly claimed Starmer would filch £2,000 from every British household via his supposed tax plans. This is a theme which will become over-familiar in the next month – Conservative battle buses across the country will have to be resprayed with the misleading figure , to obscure 2019's“Get Brexit Done”, which itself overlaid the time-honoured patriotic promise of“£350 million per week for the NHS”.

The debate in full.

In PMQs, Sunak is allowed to behave like this every week. And moderator Julie Etchingham fared no better than the House of Commons speaker in her attempts to bring the prime minister to order. After a while, it looked as if she had decided to abandon the attempt, on the assumption that, in this contest, Sunak is a hopeless underdog who deserves a special licence to interrupt his opponent.

Yet Sunak's approach to the debate was deeply unsettling. It was impossible to suppress the idea that the current British prime minister was treating this debate as an audition for his own next, and much more lucrative, career.

As for Keir Starmer, the main impression is that he seems to be morphing, physically at least, into former Labour prime minister James Callaghan. If Starmer's main task was to avoid any heinous blunders, he did well enough. But taking a penalty kick to win a match, against a goalkeeper who has been nailed to the ground by his own teammates should not be too difficult.

The man who wasn't there

The suspicion that ITV had been caught on the hop by Farage's entrance into the campaign on the same day as the debate was reinforced by the avoidance of the“F-word” – by the audience as well as Etchingham. Farage has now declared his candidacy for Clacton, the former seat of the principled Tory renegade Douglas Carswell, but apparently not a place where Farage himself would care to leave his bones . This has landed the many Conservative members who think that the current party is insufficiently“Trumpist” facing a dilemma about which direction to take.

This debate was Farage's dream scenario: a media circus in which his name was in everyone's mind, without having to do anything practical to justify his celebrity status.

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In this debate, Sunak hoped to drive home the much-quoted advice:“Always keep a-hold of Nurse/For fear of finding something worse.” Unfortunately for him, the Conservative“Nurse” has been feeding, bathing and nappy-changing the British baby since 2010, with distinctly mixed results.

Starmer's insistence that he has“changed Labour”, and could have the same transformative effect on the country over the next decade, seemed more persuasive at the end of this debate than Sunak's argument that he would have changed everything if only he had been given the chance to do so.

After the first of the televised debates, the main question was whether or not Sunak had done enough to prevent Farage's Reform UK from replacing the Conservatives as the main opposition party to Labour after the election, coming second in terms of votes if not in parliamentary seats. In his attempt to win a parliamentary seat after so many failed attempts, Farage seemed to make Robert Bruce's fabled spider seem like a craven defeatist:“If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try, try, try, try, try and try again.”

The crucial viewing figures will be instructive. Past form suggests that they will fall off after the first televised outing. An objective observer would be unlikely to think it worthwhile to sit through the box set of these debates, where at least one of the actors insisted on repeating script lines which were only tangentially relevant to the plot.

Things might get more interesting when the man who wasn't there is actually there. But on Farage's previous record in such events, even the debates which feed his publicity hunger are unlikely to be worth watching.

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