They do not suit Britain’s parliamentary political culture
After consenting to two televised circular firing squads, the leading candidates in the Conservative leadership race have had enough. According to reports, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss pulled out of Tuesday’s Sky debate, and it has now been cancelled.
Perhaps the Tories will revisit the idea for the second round once MPs have whittled the field down to two candidates. That was always the best time to have a go at this fundamentally American format, which suits putting two candidates under the microscope.
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They have otherwise always been an awkward fit for Britain’s parliamentary political culture. Ever since Gordon Brown broke one last tradition by agreeing to David Cameron’s demand for a debate, we have seen endless wrangling over who to include and how to organise it.
The result has been some very strange decisions, such as the inclusion of the Greens (one MP) but exclusion of the DUP (which then had 10 MPs).
Even when the format was restricted to those with an actual shot of being prime minister, however, they tended to distort more than they illuminated. Most of the time, they ended up sucking attention from the wider campaigns and creating media soap bubbles (remember Cleggmania?) which dominated coverage despite being unconnected to what was occurring on the ground.
Eventually, the whole effort broke down. Thank heavens.
If anything, the decision to have group debates during the first round of the leadership contest was even stranger. Not only did we end up with the usual low-information brawl, but most of the candidates are never even going to face a public vote. The only electorate which matters now is 300-odd Tory MPs who know these people personally.
Perhaps it might have been worth it had the broadcasters used the opportunity to press the candidates on important issues that aren’t receiving enough attention.
But of course, they did not: the entire ITV debate passed without anyone even saying the word ‘housing’, and you wouldn’t know from watching that Scotland is run by a separatist party trying to launch a referendum on breaking the UK apart.
Instead, ITV gave us such questions as ‘do the candidates think they’re good people?’ (yes) and ‘are they willing to get around the table with Vladimir Putin?’ (no), whilst Channel 4 indulged in some wearisome show-of-hands populism about trust in politicians. Lots of heat, little light.
TV debates can, done right, serve a useful function. They show us what the candidates are like under pressure — Rishi Sunak’s woefully misjudged question to Liz Truss about being a former Lib Dem gave us an insight a conventional press conference would not. It also gives outsiders a chance to stage an upset.
But there is a time and a place, and the clown-car stage of the Conservative leadership contest was never it. A five-way debate will seldom be more than an undignified brawl, and it makes little sense to invite general public scrutiny to what is necessarily the most inward-facing part of the race.
We will know which two candidates will be facing the national ballot of Tory members by the end of the week. That’s the time for Sky’s debate.