Three leadership debates have been revealing in all the wrong ways
Who won last night’s ITV debate between the Conservative leadership candidates? The answer, of course, is that they all lost. The quality of the cut-and-thrust — or rather the ineffectual push-and-shove — was abysmal.
On the economy, the other candidates piled on to Rishi Sunak, suggesting that his tax rises (many of which haven’t been implemented yet) are the cause of the impending recession. With Liz Truss leading the charge, the big idea of the evening was to cancel the planned hike in corporation tax, as if boosting the profits of the richest companies was the best use of billions of pounds right now.
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At another juncture we were told by Kemi Badenoch that the real cause of the cost of living crisis was inflation. Well, yes. Rising prices do tend to make things more expensive. But aside from stating the obvious, did anyone have an explanation for why prices were rising so fast?
Not really. Badenoch made a valid point about holding the Bank of England to account. But no amount of monetary discipline in Threadneedle Street is going stop the war in Ukraine or China’s historic shift from coal to natural gas.
Meanwhile, as Britain braces itself for record temperatures, the candidates were determined not to do anything about global warming that might bankrupt the country. Which again, was a statement of the obvious that completely missed the point. The thing driving households to the wall right now is not the falling cost of renewables, but our reliance on fossil fuels.
But perhaps I’m the one missing the point. The real purpose of these debates is not to say anything of substance, but to see who can speak vacuously without letting it show.
On Friday, in the ConservativeHome debate, each of the candidates were asked to name their greatest weakness. Predictably, they all did that humblebrag thing of mentioning something that was actually a strength. Thus Badenoch was too humorous, Sunak too much of perfectionist, Truss over-enthusiastic, Mordaunt had too many cats and Tugendhat prone to mentioning his heroic record of military service.
But after watching the Channel 4 and ITV debates, a very different set of weaknesses has become clear: Truss just doesn’t connect with the audience. Tugendhat does connect, but only on the rare occasions he deviates from his script. Badenoch comes across well most of the time, but is a stranger to the public. Mordaunt increasingly looks like she doesn’t want to be there. And Sunak is pleased to be there, but more so with himself.
Robert Peston exaggerates in calling last night’s debate “little short of a disaster” for the Conservatives. It won’t be, because it’ll soon be forgotten. What will be a disaster, however, is if the eventual winner of this race doesn’t raise his, or her, game.