OPINION - Adenoidal Keir Starmer and sniping Rishi Sunak make me fear for the next five years

Undated file photos of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (left) and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (PA) (PA Wire)
Undated file photos of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (left) and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (PA) (PA Wire)

The correct and responsible approach to the leaders’ TV debate is to scrutinise the substance and focus on policy. What you actually do is think to yourself, can we bear five years of Sir Keir Starmer’s adenoidal diction? That’s closely followed by the thought that for a former head boy of Winchester College — motto, Manners Makyth Man — Rishi Sunak has a shocking habit of talking over his opponent and interrupting: poor Julie Etchingham having to call them to order. Gentlemen please! If only.

How the heart sank with the opening statements, followed by a further sinking with the concluding ones: lessons learned by rote and delivered with the eye on the camera, Nick Clegg style, to convey sincerity. Fake, fake, fake.

For my money, Rishi won, if only by dint of shamelessness. His coaches had plainly sent him into this with two points to hammer home: one, that Labour is going to raise your taxes by £2,000 — which appeared to take Sir Keir by surprise — and two, that it is going to tax pensioners. Neither stands up to scrutiny given that the Treasury has disputed the £2,000 figure but no matter. We realised we’re being played like fish on a line, but we still took it in.

What’s irritating is the bogusness of it all. There’s the inevitable line of poor ordinary people wheeled out to put their point about NHS waiting lists and batch cooking to save gas bills, to give the impression of normality to the whole thing. For two minutes they hear their own name — Janet, trust me, I feel your pain — and then the spotlight moves on to Omar on Gaza.

During the debate the viewer had the dim sense of being taken for a ride, but couldn’t say how

No disrespect to Etchingham, but we needed Andrew Neil who could have dismantled either man by intonation alone. Better still, cut out the audience and leave him to ask the questions. Remember the time he told Boris Johnson that he wasn’t a very nice man, was he? That kind of thing. And no nonsense about 45-second answers. Probably nowadays, you’re not allowed to have an all-male line-up. Our loss.

The format meant that Rishi got away with murder when it came to the most fraught issue, immigration. The gentleman who piped up on camera to say correctly that no one can be trusted on this went straight off on the inevitable tangent to ask about the people arriving by boat. With one bound, Rishi was free. If the question had pinned him to the board about the three-quarters of a million people net arriving in one year, it’s hard to see how he would have got out of it. But nope, he was able to talk instead about his Rwanda plan.

As for Sir Keir, his big idea was to deal with the criminal people smugglers, but it turned out the Tories had thought of that already. But it did give Sir Keir the chance to turn all alpha male: “I have taken down terrorist gangs” — what, single-handed, Sir Keir? — and he liked that so much he repeated it again.

It remains for Nigel Farage on Friday to bring the topic back to reality by repeating, “2.4 million”, this being the gross number of legal migrants in two years. Since these figures are always expressed in terms of Wales, that’s three-quarters of Wales (population 3.1 million).

Throughout all this, the viewer had the dim sense of being taken for a ride but couldn’t say how. The nearest we came to it was with Etchingham’s quickfire questions on what, exactly, would be safe from cuts given that neither man wanted to cut spending and — VAT on private schools apart — neither wanted to raise taxes. It doesn’t add up, but we had no time to ask how.

And that’s why televised debates are so tricky. The contenders barely had time to skim the surface of weighty and important topics before it was time to press onto global warming and disaffected youth. Proper interrogation of the candidates simply wasn’t possible.

What we did get was enough of the flavour of them to see whether we’d find another five years of his wooden diction, his flashing smile, bearable. And what most of us will feel is that we’re not exactly being spoiled for choice here. Back in 2010, with the Cameron/Clegg/Brown debate, 10 million people tuned in; last night it was 4.8 million, two million fewer than in 2019. God knows, those weren’t the clash of intellectual titans, but it’s hard to avoid the impression that the political class is getting less and less impressive if Rishi and Sir Keir are the very best it can offer. Let’s not even think Thatcher/Kinnock.

There’s another month of this and it’s not too late to learn the crucial lesson: give time for candidates to answer sensible questions sensibly. On the bright side, no one mentioned hard-working families. That’s one mercy.

Melanie McDonagh is an Evening Standard columnist