by Henry Hill
Monday, 18
July 2022
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13:45

Tory leadership debates were never a good idea

They do not suit Britain’s parliamentary political culture
by Henry Hill
Blue on blue violence is hurting the Tories. Credit: Getty

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.

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.

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Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 month ago

They might not advance Tory prospects in the short term but if it halted Penny Maudaunt’s bandwagon and highlighted the virtues of Kemi Badenoch they have served a useful purpose. Exposure of the candidates to the sort of vacuous and biased interrogation they can expect regularly has some merit.
We now know Rishi presents well whatever one might think of his policies, Liz is surprisingly wooden and robotic and certainly could do with intensive coaching in this area if chosen as PM and PM’s performance does nothing to contradict the other reports of her general uselessness in action however pleasing to look at she may be. All this should help in chosing the next PM.

Last edited 1 month ago by Jeremy Bray
Arkadian X
Arkadian X
1 month ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Amen to that!

David McKee
David McKee
1 month ago

Precisely so.
This is a version of reality TV. It might be entertaining as Big Brother or Love Island, but in politics it does no one any favours at all. Conservative MPs need to get into a huddle and come up with two names for the wider Party to choose from. With any luck, they will come up with credible candidates with no skeletons in the cupboard. We don’t need TV cameras peering over their shoulders as they do it.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 month ago
Reply to  David McKee

You can’t have candidates with no skeletons in the cupboard, when the party itself is a corpse.

David McKee
David McKee
1 month ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Then that will make the next election interesting. It will be Zombie Apocalypse!

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 month ago
Reply to  David McKee

Yeah, but when do we get to the onscreen fornication? That’s what I’m looking forward to.

Last edited 1 month ago by polidori redux
John Tyler
John Tyler
1 month ago

Well said! However, I would prefer no head-to-heads at all; they don’t match the workings of our parliamentary system.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 month ago

Here, here. There is afr to much trying to make out system like the US, hence the call that we need an election if the leader of the party in power changes – the PM is not a president, we do not (or should not) vote for him/her, it is our local candidates and their party’s manifesto that we vote for.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 month ago

Despite my earlier comment I agree that we ape too much that originates in the US and that the previous manner that the Conservative Party dealt with change of leadership while in government was less disruptive and emphasised the party nature of our politics where we vote for a party not simply the leader. I do so despite the disadvantage that it tends to throw up leaders who have upset fewer of their parliamentary colleagues than the rest and thus produce bland rather than outstanding replacements.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 month ago

Yep, even the Pope couldn’t cope, so he went for a more opaque process. The best bet is, Tory MPs send up the white smoke after a few days, once their deliberations have reached a conclusion. They can then pass over the final decision to the membership, who can follow their own version of the same process, while the ’22 committee members get busy with the clean up at Westminster, mop the blood off the floors, etc.

Last edited 1 month ago by Prashant Kotak
Arkadian X
Arkadian X
1 month ago

If you were watching from Scotland you couldn’t watch it AT ALL. I had to reset my fire TV and tell it I was in London to be able to see it.
Just as well they are not doing the sky one as I don’t have sky…
Anyway, I thought the second debate was better, but rather undignified, especially the opening and closing remarks. It did look like a game show.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
1 month ago

Debates harm politics, in my opinion, because they seem to provide useful information but in fact don’t. Good debaters are good at debate, but not necessarily anything else relevant to being a leader.
What should get attention is each candidate’s ability to get things done. That’s hard to judge, but not impossible. Debates shed no light on that subject.