45 seconds to midnight

Say what you will of nuclear war but at least, unlike this election, it’s mercifully brief


“Gentlemen, please!” ITV’s Julie Etchingham implored Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer to play nicely, but to no avail. Yes, it was TV Debate time!

It had opened with the men standing on either side of her, Starmer in his new glasses,  hair Brylcreemed into place, Sunak in the suit his mum bought before his growth spurt, both smiling. The impression was of headmaster and head boy welcoming you to the open day of the town’s leading comprehensive. It didn’t last.

ITV, in its effort to solve all the world’s problems in 70 minutes, had restricted the answers to 45-seconds

The opening question, from Paula from Huddersfield, was unanswerable. She couldn’t make ends meet, cooking food in batches at weekends to save money. “All I do is work to live.”

The good news, Sunak told us, was that he had a clear plan. A clear plan, that’s what he had. A plan. A clear one. And what was Labour going to do? It was going to put two thousand pounds of taxes on every family. Every family, two thousand pounds. Two thousand pounds. Not like the Conservatives, because they had a clear plan.

Compared to that, the Labour leader was at once more human and less disciplined. He empathised with Paula, and told her that many of her troubles were Liz Truss’s fault, but if he had any idea what to do about them, we never found out, because ITV, in its effort to solve all the world’s problems in 70 minutes, had restricted the answers to 45-seconds. Amazingly, that made enlightenment hard to attain.

It suited the prime minister better. He had two messages, that he had a clear plan, and that Labour were going to put your taxes up. By two thousand pounds, since you ask. He offered these in response to everything, and we very quickly knew that Rishi Sunak had a clear plan and that Labour were going to put taxes up on every family by two thousand pounds, which was not was Sunak was going to do because he had a clear plan.

Starmer on the other hand found himself starting answers and then getting cut off. He had a rebuttal to the two thousand pound figure, but it took him half an hour to get to it.

Where he did score early on was with mockery. As Sunak explained that NHS waiting lists were coming down, he made a face of disbelief before interrupting to point out they had got larger. “They are coming down!” the prime minister insisted, snippiness creeping into his voice. “This is the guy who says he’s good at maths,” Starmer noted. The audience tittered. Poor Rishi, not just mockery, but mockery of his ability at arithmetic. “They are coming down from where they were when they were higher!” he explained, and was greeted with a full-blown, and well-deserved, gale of laughter. “They are down!”

The same could be said of nuclear war. But not, sadly, of TV debates

Sunak’s best moment came when he challenged Starmer on how he would resolve strikes, though he overplayed it by repeating “HOW WOULD YOU RESOLVE IT?” every time the Labour leader opened his month. “The grown-up way to do that,” Starmer eventually began, in what felt very much like a dig at his schoolboyish opponent, “is to get in the room and negotiate.”

Did we learn anything? Labour’s plan to put VAT on private school fees won spontaneous applause from the audience, as did Starmer’s other taxes on very rich people who weren’t there (unless you counted the prime minister). The only part of the past 14 years that Sunak wishes to discuss is his Covid furlough scheme. If you want to wind him up, mention literally anything else that you remember. “You’re going hear a lot about the past at this election,” he complained at one point, as though discussing the government’s record was cheating.

The prime minister did at least succeed in bringing the young people in the audience together, as they laughed at his national service plan, which he explained was incredibly popular with all sorts of people who you wouldn’t know, because they go to a different school.

“Whatever you might think of it,” he said, slightly pathetically, “it’s an idea that’s transformative for our society.” The same could be said of nuclear war. But not, sadly, of TV debates. Four and a half weeks to go.

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