Julie Etchingham, moderating Sunday’s ITV tory leadership debate, started by labouring the format as if it was a quiz show. She would ask some questions. The candidates could ask things of one another. They could play their secret buzzer card only once. It’s a difficult time for TV professionals; you live your whole life thinking about what a viewer might find interesting and gainful, then suddenly you’re dumped with five cats in a sack, and expected to turn it into entertainment. But then, it’s a difficult time for all of us.
There was a debate on Friday, of course, and some lessons were learned: Liz Truss’s people have clearly told her to stop doing moving her hands like a 90s clubber doing “big fish, little fish, cardboard box”. Team Rishi has begged him to stop smiling all the time and find some steel. Penny Mordaunt’s lot have said, “Change nothing, you’re perfect”, because they are frightened of her, or playing the long game to subvert and humiliate her, or maybe both. Tom Tugendhat’s advisers, unaccountably, have said, “You know how often you mention the army? Well do that again, only this time, more. If a sentence doesn’t contain the word ‘Afghanistan’, that sentence is not over.” Kemi Badenoch is now essaying the complicated double-speak of insider-outsider – she was there at all the Treasury meetings, on the frontline of government, she knows about brute reality and is all seeing, all wise, and yet at the same time, she is a completely clean break from the whole shower. When you really drill into it, this makes her the continuity candidate; she’s in favour of having cake, and eating it, as Boris Johnson was before her. None of them are quite far enough from Johnson for comfort, nor close enough to mimic his ease.
They started with an exceedingly tedious debate about who knew how to fix the economy. All the statements, really, bar none, were so basic and falsifiable that they could have been filleted with a 15-second TikTok, if only there’d been any young people watching. According to Truss, low tax creates growth, and therefore not increasing corporation tax would somehow solve the cost of living crisis. Badenoch will tackle inflation, because that’s famously how inflation works, you just have to treat it like a bully and face it down. Sunak will rebuild with innovation, investment and education, and it’s frankly weird to have been chancellor for three years and not noticed that growth is a little bit more complicated than a cheap Blair impression. Tugendhat will also reduce the tax burden, and if you don’t believe him, you can ask his mates in the army how well he faces down an enemy. It matters not whether that enemy is Isis or VAT – the principle stands. Mordaunt knows from her background what it’s like if you can’t afford a bus fare, and while this was thin on macroeconomic heft, really, in the context, she was no more vapid than anyone else.
Ding, ding! The round was over, and everyone was still standing. None of them were really landing any blows; it was more like a hand-flapping sitcom fight.
The innovation of getting them to question each other was a good and revealing one, on paper, since it smoked out who each thought of as their threat, and where each thought they were strongest. The questions tended towards the wonky: Mordaunt wanted to know why Sunak hadn’t raised defence spending; Badenoch wanted to know why he’d lost so much to fraud during Covid; Truss wanted to know where he stood on China. It wasn’t that revelatory in the end; we knew that Mordaunt wanted to paint herself as the military’s friend, after all her naval cosplay; we knew that Badenoch wanted to underscore her attention to Treasury detail, and we knew that Truss unaccountably thought her keen grasp of international affairs – insofar as she goes abroad, for her job – proves she has grip.
We could with a fair wind have predicted that they would all see Rishi as their main foe, since he still commands the greatest support on the non-Spartan wing of the party. His question to Truss backfired horribly. She’s been a Lib Dem and a remainer – and which is her greatest regret? Well, chum, she returned: her life has been a journey. They didn’t teach true conservatism at her ordinary comprehensive school, she had to figure it out for herself. Things were probably different at Winchester. He squirmed at this. It was probably the only point at which you could say one of them bested another.
Tugendhat directed himself towards Mordaunt, judiciously, as they’re both vying for the clean-skin place on the ballot. He asked her when she was going to give more details about her plans. He’s so obsessed with Keir Starmer, though, that it felt as though his mind were elsewhere, his subconscious gaping open.
“The poor viewers have a month of this to come,” said Mordaunt at one point. “We have to acknowledge what we’ve done to people,” said Badenoch. True enough, but honestly, these people, they’ll piss on you and tell you it’s raining.
Two points of unity in the hour: none of them would have Boris Johnson in their cabinet, should he ask to serve; none of them wanted an early general election. This is the crucible of their problem: they want to keep the mandate, while wholeheartedly disowning the mandated, and on what grounds, they have no clue.
July 18, 2022 at 02:24AM Zoe Williams