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Who won Sunak vs Starmer? This was the Spiderman-pointing-at Spiderman debate

Julie Etchington was the clear winner (Credit: Jonathan Hordle-ITV/Getty)

Julie Etchington was the clear winner (Credit: Jonathan Hordle-ITV/Getty)


June 5, 2024   5 mins

There was one clear winner in last night’s prime ministerial debate on ITV. It was, of course, the moderator. While Keir Starmer droned and Rishi Sunak piped and yapped, Julie Etchingham radiated a sincerity that neither of the men on stage with her was able to rival. They were loathing every minute of it and pretending to relish the cut and thrust. She made no pretence. She was bored, she was tetchy, and she absolutely wasn’t having their bullshit.

“Please, gentlemen, we will lower our voices,” she said at one point like a primary school teacher enjoining a rabble of five-year-olds to “use our indoor voices”. Again and again, she interrupted the babble of one or other to insist they answered the question asked, or shut up and give the other one the chance to speak. “Gentlemen, please!”

Not that her interventions were always, or even often, successful. Noting that the IFS thought that both men were in a “conspiracy of silence” about having to either raise taxes or cut services, she asked something to the effect of “are you levelling with us about the public finances — one-word answer, yes or no”. And, of course, both men embarked on long dreary meaningless sentences neither of which contained the word yes, or no.

This was a wretched, wretched debate — in both its format and in its performers.

There was a nice bit around then — it’s a format that could be developed in the second debate — when she made them stop answering out loud altogether. Raise your hand if I’m wrong, she said, and reeled off a list of the unpopular taxes that they both absolutely definitely scout’s honour weren’t going to raise. Both men kept their hands clamped to their sides and hoped their noses weren’t visibly lengthening. Then she asked how they were proposing to pay for everything and, alas, they went back to talking.

This was a wretched, wretched debate — in both its format and in its performers. Who was its intended audience, given it was neither informative nor entertaining? The quickfire format — 45 seconds an answer — meant, even before you factored in the endless interruptions, that nothing remotely substantial stood a chance of being said. Which left rhetorical dash, style and personality: something neither of these earnest technocrats could summon if their political careers depended on it. Sir Keir comes across like the teacher that nobody else in the staffroom wants to include in after-work drinks; and Rishi comes across like the sixth-former who should by rights be head boy but missed out because the teachers found him too annoying.

Of the two men, the debate marginally favoured Sir Keir — if only because he was on easier ground politically, not having been involved in causing the omnishambles the next PM will have to try to clear up. Rishi suffered groans and derisive laughter from the audience a bit more often — blaming Covid and industrial action for the state of the NHS; muttering weakly that the record number of small boats landing was “because it’s a challenge”, and scoring the biggest laugh of the evening when he told a Gen Z that national service was going to be “transformational”.

But stylistically, they were much of a muchness — and it wasn’t a muchness to write home about. Both did the thing of infallibly answering their questioners by name because a manual somewhere says it helps you sound like a human being: “Well, Claire”; “Well, Stephen”, “Like you, Myles, I think…” Both fell over themselves to burnish their ethos appeals with reference to their families. Climate crisis? It’s all Rishi’s girls ever talk to him about so, y’know, he cares. NHS? And did Sir Keir mention that his dad was a humble toolmaker and that he, too, knew what it was like to have your phone cut off because you’d failed to pay the bill?

Watching Sunak, you could see the stiff and nervous result of hours of intensive debate prep from the Tory party’s rhetorical turd-polishing department. Having determined that their candidate was hard to relate to, struggled with spontaneity, and couldn’t help looking slappably smug, they did the best they could to drill him. He had been told to look down the camera, and repeat a small handful of phrases and lines in the hopes that they stuck in people’s heads after the sight of his ghastly comportment at the podium had, hopefully, faded.

Someone, at the very beginning of this campaign, decided that the two phrases he needs to get across to the electorate are “clear plan” and “bold action”. Work them in as often as you can, Rishi. And so he did. Those were the lines he repeated in that bizarre, soggy speech outside Downing Street that fired the starting gun for the election. And those were the lines he repeated every chance he got in the debate.

Cost of living crisis? Why, the Conservatives had “bold action” for that. And, what’s more, a “clear plan”. Immigration? “Bold action” was very much the thing. Oh, and “sticking to our plan”. On foreign policy? I’ve made a “bold” decision. Young people? Making you do national service is “an example of the bold action I’m prepared to take”.

How is running a country like running a football team (another point in Etchingham’s favour is that though she was clearly ordered to ask this “tongue in cheek” question at the end, she didn’t conceal her contempt for its idiocy)? You need, wait for it, “A clear plan and bold action.”

He had been given two other lines of attack and one of defence. The line of defence was, simply, that the last 14 years had been nothing to do with him, and that “this election is about the future”. As you’d imagine, Sir Keir made a certain amount of hay with this because, well, why wouldn’t you?

The attack lines were that Sir Keir was proposing what he variously called “Keir Starmer’s pension tax” and “Keir Starmer’s retirement tax” (they should have settled on one epithet in debate training) because they wouldn’t sign up to his triple-lock-double-plus-ultra or whatever their offer to their core vote is. “For the first time in the history of this country, pensioners will pay tax… Why do you want to do that to pensioners?” he asked in his best Leave-Britney-Alone voice.

But the main one was his claim that every working family would be £2,000 poorer under Labour. My goodness he said that a lot; even more than he said, “bold action”. And to be fair, it did get under Sir Keir’s skin. He tried, with some indignation, to rebut it — even going so far as to deny it in answer to a question about something completely different — but it’s a fool’s game to try to unpick a shonky financial statistic in 45 seconds and Rishi knows it.

Sir Keir, too, had been drilled. He uttered variations on the phrase “turning the page” and “fourteen years” every chance he got. But he did manage moments of genuine, or genuine-seeming, indignation. “Shocking… shocking…” he muttered, really seeming to be shocked as Mr Sunak claimed that the Tories could be trusted on national defence and that Labour couldn’t.

It seemed an odd thing to be the one to really get ventilated about — until you realised that he had momentarily mistaken himself for John McClane in Die Hard, so was taking this personally. He was Director of Public Prosecutions, he said indignantly, when they’d taken down seven aeroplanes that were about to be blown up (and where was Rishi then, eh? Betting against the country in his bank!). He’d been DPP, too, when they’d smashed criminal terrorist gangs — so people smugglers wouldn’t be much of a challenge.

The way he spoke about it, you’d think the DPP was the tip of the spear, personally kicking in doors and wrestling the controls of jetliners from jihadists rather than, say, organising the paperwork for their court appearances in an air-conditioned office in Petty France.

If he turns up for the final debate in an oil-stained vest and sees the PM off with the words “Yippee-ki-ay, motherfucker”, it will be a very welcome development. But the real pop-cultural parallel here is the Spiderman-pointing-at-Spiderman meme. We’re presented with a choice between two men who have rather more in common than divides them.

The infantile politics of the day, and the infantile format of the debate, means that they can talk about “tough decisions” but they can’t talk about tough decisions. Neither of them can admit that one way or another they’ll have to spend less, or tax more, than anyone wants to hear — and that they will both be at the mercy of events rather than otherwise. The rest is showbiz.


Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator. His forthcoming book, The Haunted Wood: A History of Childhood Reading, is out in September.
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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
20 days ago

I would vote for Spider-Man for prime minister. He has the proportional votes of a spider!

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
20 days ago

What is required from our leaders is good old-fashioned rugged common sense and bravery. We need a Churchill. My question is, where is he?

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
20 days ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

Yes, I agree. I’d also add pragmatism: the ability to know your principles and be guided by them but deviate from those principles when necessary to make decisions according to the facts on the ground.

AC Harper
AC Harper
20 days ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

The chance to adopt a New Churchill (Boris Johnson, Liz Truss) was deliberately revoked. Too much change might upset the comfortable gravy train.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
19 days ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Too many people getting rich off the status quo.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
19 days ago
Reply to  AC Harper

“The chance to adopt a New Churchill (Boris Johnson, Liz Truss)”
Doesn’t happen often but I am actually lost for words….

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
20 days ago

So that’s it then. Let’s just elect Julie Etchingham as PM.

Peter B
Peter B
20 days ago

Enjoyed reading this. Some choice phrases that deserve to be reused in there – theTory party’s rhetorical t**d polishing department, Starmer’s portrayal of the DPP role as some sort of action man hero.
Didn’t watch the debate (apart from accidentally for a few seconds passing the TV).

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
20 days ago

Sir Keir comes across like the teacher that nobody else in the staffroom wants to include in after-work drinks; and Rishi comes across like the sixth-former who should by rights be head boy but missed out because the teachers found him too annoying.”
There you have it – packed in a joke, how else – one of Britain’s most idiotic, self-defeating traits: a chronic allergy to clever people. I might ask about these teachers – what are they like? Probably dull, dreary, thoroughly mediocre and so bored with their own sad lives of sipping bad NescafĂ© in the staffroom that they have to jazz it up by bitching about the students they’re probably slightly jealous of with their bright futures.
All very well bitching about Starmer and Sunak and their various faults and inadequacies. But it does raise the question: how DO you want your leaders to look? How do you want them to be?
Going from this, they’ve got to be clever and technocratically talented enough to be able to understand the process of governing and pull the right levers once in the driving seat – but also somehow be a visionary (you need a whole new country after all), yet not be boring or come over as too clever, or be too rich, or have been to too expensive a school, or…
Basically, the person has to be thoroughly excellent but be able to fool everyone into thinking they are mediocre because no-one likes a Smart Alec.
That is an impossible laundry list.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
20 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I think the British trait of relentlessly mocking anybody trying to portray an air of authority is one of its greatest strengths, and is arguably why nothing close to a despot has ever got anywhere near the levers of power.
Yanks might fawn over and suck up to their boss as a matter of course, whereas in Britain you’ll be ripped to shreds for doing so, and rightly too

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
20 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I agree, but overdoing it means that a lot of really bright people won’t actually go anywhere near politics. And that is how you end up with Rayner & Lammy in senior positions. Which is not very good, especially when you’re in dire need of massive, tectonic change.
Laughter and derision are OK if it’s about getting accountability. It’s not OK when laughter and derision are done for laughter and derision’s own sakes. Then they are a counterproductive kneejerk reaction that doesn’t make anything better, it keeps you in a neverending mediocrity doom-loop.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
20 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Good observation

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
19 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I don’t think the two are related myself. If it were then America with it’s kowtowing to power wouldn’t be stuck choosing between a half senile crook and a fully senile sec pest in their upcoming election

Arkadian Arkadian
Arkadian Arkadian
19 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

And again, here are the mystery downvoters…

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
20 days ago

A clear victory for Rishi. Starmer REALLY has no vision and no policies and his advisers, Opposition and a lazy media have shielded him from any scrutiny for so long he is getting caught out. His tacit promise of renewal for the greedy failing public sector and deranged net zero will cost us triple the Treasury 2k. So hey presto…his rigid failure to present any positive fresh vision was just embarrassing. He should be skewered far more for his reflex leftist ideological resistance to border control (this man helped stop the flight of murderers and rapists and liberated them bavk onto our street remember) and private medicine, his nasty negative class envy on private schools, and nonsensical tosh on him being Bond and smashing gangs. He looked pasty, panicked, robotic, weird, evasive. This man is not equipped for No 10. Good to see the audience cheer Rishi for facing down the ghastly greedy unprincipled Red Young Doctors too.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
20 days ago

I’m grateful for the write-up but it confirms all my reasons for not being able to watch these excruciating spectacles. The teams that coach these politicians on how to communicate to us deplorables all need to be sacked. Unless I’m just wrong and it actually works?

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
20 days ago

It’s all a charade. A fugazi. Both committed to Agenda 2030 and Net Zero. You are literally voting on what colour tie your elected traitor wears.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
19 days ago
Reply to  Mike Michaels

My condolences that you have to decide between the two options.

Amelia Melkinthorpe
Amelia Melkinthorpe
19 days ago
Reply to  Mike Michaels

Same slug, different rosettes.

David Iain Craig
David Iain Craig
20 days ago

This kind of hopeless circus surely points to the inadequacies of our ‘democratic’ system of government.

AC Harper
AC Harper
20 days ago

Increasing circuses, increasing numbers of clowns.

Samuel Gee
Samuel Gee
20 days ago

What a vacuous observation. Yes the referee was able to refrain from actually debating and looked much less combative than the other two. Chapeau Sam getting paid for these priceless observations.

AC Harper
AC Harper
20 days ago

According to Wikipedia:

In psychoanalysis, the narcissism of small differences is the idea that the more a relationship or community shares commonalities, the more likely the people in it are to engage in interpersonal feuds and mutual ridicule because of hypersensitivity to minor differences perceived in each other. 

The two debaters were aimed at each other, not the wellbeing of Britain.

Aidan Anabetting
Aidan Anabetting
20 days ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Nice quote!

Dengie Dave
Dengie Dave
20 days ago

I’m practicing drawing the image I’m going to put on my polling card. It will be a part of the male anatomy. That’ll show ’em!

joseph wilson
joseph wilson
19 days ago

We know which side Sam is in favour of and it is not Rishi.

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
19 days ago

The UK has some ÂŁ2.8 Trillion of public debt and rising, not once was this mentioned.
Welfarism is destroying our economy and our values, not once was this mentioned.
So not only are messrs Sunak and Starmer complicit in avoiding the real issues, so too are ITV.

We can only hope that Farage, as Leader of the Reform party, will tackle both the debate on the UK’s ‘Debt’ and ‘Welfarism’ full on.

McExpat M
McExpat M
19 days ago

By design, surely, and not limited to this debate is the concept of time. Start the proceedings by letting each candidate have a full five minutes to articulate their vision for the country. The debate begins after that with reasonable increments of time to respond. The requirement for the female interlocutor becomes less jarring and relevant then. Remove the handlers from the process and let the candidates reveal themselves in their entirety. What a novel concept.

Peter B
Peter B
19 days ago
Reply to  McExpat M

Agree, this would be much better. Give them at least 10 minutes (perhaps 20) to talk without interruption on their vision and plans. Without any teleprompters or notes.
Then – and only then – start asking the questions.
The questions need to be a response to what they say. Not the main event or an outlier for on the make gotcha journalists or people pushing agendas.
As it is, the leaders don’t need to commit to anything. They never have to commit to a strategy and it all becomes tactics.
Someone I heard today pointed out that the leaders now talk about *what they won’t do* instead of *what they will*. They’re quite happy to talk about which taxes they won’t put up – but never those that they might (sorry, I mean will). They all promise to “do better”, but never quite get round to any convincing plans of how they plan to do this.
I wasn’t intending to make the comment partisan. But after 14 years out of government, you’d think that Labour might have something a little more concrete, practical and convincing to offer than some half-baked ideas like “pragmatic realism” in foreign policy, securonomics, putting VAT on private schools without any plan for the consequences, creating a new state company *Great British Energy) without any clear objectives, etc. Not saying these need all be bad things, but they clearly haven’t been thought through by practical people.
Of course, the Tories are no better.

Amelia Melkinthorpe
Amelia Melkinthorpe
19 days ago

Several wings of the same WEF nut. A real plague on ALL their houses.

Addie Shog
Addie Shog
19 days ago

These debates are utterly pointless. We learn nothing.
That’s when we have vaguely interesting candidates. With these two – it’s more fun watching paint dry.

Amelia Melkinthorpe
Amelia Melkinthorpe
17 days ago

Two cheeks of the same globalist derriere.
A (real) plague on all their houses.