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Britain’s TV debates have lost their aura

Candidates tend to be defensive and repeat their prepared lines. Credit: Getty

June 5, 2024 - 7:00am

The aura of TV debates owes more to fiction than reality. The set-piece demolitions written into The West Wing are rare. Instead, it’s more likely to see a contest which simply appeals to partisan priors. Instead of punchy demolitions, the candidates tend to be defensive and repeat their prepared lines as much as they can. Tonight wasn’t really an exception.

Sunak, the man with the most to gain, had done his prep. His message was not just clear but repetitive: this was about the future, not the past. He is a man with a clear plan and bold action, never mind his record. The soundbites, along with a line about Labour tax rises, came thick and fast. Starmer, he said, had no plan, pushing him for detail on how he’d deal with issues like the NHS strikes.

Starmer had his own catchphrases. He mentioned his humble upbringing, his father’s job in a factory, and his wife’s work for the NHS. Relatability was a key theme, drawing out implicit comparisons with the PM’s wealthy background. Alongside it came the expected attacks on the Tory’s time in government, from the rising NHS waiting lists to the debacle of Liz Truss. “Everyone else is living with it,” he said about the Tory record.

Beyond that, the format took the sting out of the occasion. Questions were often too long, and too little time was allocated to answers. Quite often it became a scrap to be heard, without the time to present considered answers. Fast-moving questions skipped across policy areas too quickly, without the follow-up necessary to push for details or to query and question numbers.

Tonally, however, the Labour leader had the edge. Sunak often seemed tetchy. He stretched the time limits and refused to be curbed by Julie Etchingham, the moderator. Invited to empathise with those struggling with the cost of living crisis, he didn’t quite hit the right register. For Starmer, it came more naturally, as did the “No” when asked if he would use private healthcare for a sick relative.

Without any obvious howlers, there was no obvious winner from this debate. In the studio, this seemed to favour Starmer, who raised the most applause. At home, where his personal ratings sit higher, overall and on almost every issue, it is likely to be the same. On an occasion where Sunak needed to make up ground, he failed to do so; his answers again taking the campaign nowhere beyond the core vote of appealing to wealthy pensioners.

Overall, it was an hour that reinforced the lack of enthusiasm around our current politics. Neither major party leader gave a masterclass, either in charisma or policy details. Sunak failed to come up with an answer to why the Tories had failed and why this time would be different. Starmer was never quite convincing as the man to fix it.

These debates are now part of our political landscape, with TV execs and leaders both hoping they shift the electoral dial. Unfortunately, they seem to be more about branding rather than action, a relic of the 2010s coming up short against the challenges of the future. It’s unlikely that tonight’s debate will live long in memory.


John Oxley is a corporate strategist and political commentator. His Substack is Joxley Writes.

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Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
20 days ago

I saw it advertised in the tv schedules earlier, then forgot about it.
That’s how long it lived in my memory.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
20 days ago

Scrap it. Stupid import from the States that serves no purpose in a party system.
The UK doesn’t vote for the PM, they vote for the local MP so these debates are largely meaningless

John Murray
John Murray
20 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

100%. They only make sense in an American context because the TV debates in America are a rare occasion when political opponents will share the same stage. Even then, it is always about analyzing “did that candidate sigh too much?” (e.g., Al Gore) and other performative fluff.
By contrast in the UK, the House of Commons has PMQ’s every week when it is in session, so they directly debate each other all the time. During elections, they’d be better off having them do televised town halls on their own, taking questions from voters rather than having a useless canned soundbite contest.

Peter B
Peter B
20 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Not always true about “the UK doesn’t vote for the PM”. 2019 proves it. As did 1997.
Probably won’t be totally true in 2024 either. Being a good local MP isn’t going to save any Tory MPs with a majority below 15,000. For those who haven’t already bottled it and quit.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
20 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

Local MPs are at the mercy of the national sentiment absolutely, however using 2019 is a poor example as that particular leader (and his replacement) have both departed whilst the same government ticks along

Paul T
Paul T
20 days ago

The idea of watching Beaker, with its nasally drone, and Mr Ineffective trying to bore the country to tears put me right off.

J B
J B
20 days ago

Apologies John but I don’t recall these debates having any sort of “aura” in the past – or is it just me?

Dustin Needle
Dustin Needle
20 days ago
Reply to  J B

No, not just you, so I guess Starmer didn’t do particularly well?

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
20 days ago

We only started having these kinds of election debates in 2010. They never had any ‘aura’. It’s an American thing. Let’s just scrap them.

Andy White
Andy White
19 days ago

It’s all about waiting to see if there’s going to be a killer punch, a “Senator, I knew Jack Kennedy. You are no Jack Kennedy” moment. That’s what the media want. Usually it doesn’t happen, though, and we all feel cheated, as in ‘That’s another hour I’ll never get back’. I’ve never ended up liking a party leader more after one of these debates, either, and wonder if anyone ever has?!