Artillery Row

Technical problems

Rishi Sunak must be glad to face one problem that is absolutely not his fault

“Just… careful.” We were on the 17th floor of the super soaraway Sun newspaper headquarters, where Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer had arrived to make their pitches to the tabloid’s readers. The prime minister was going first, and he was being quizzed about the betting scandal engulfing his party. Unfortunately, journalists had been confined to watching from a nearby room, on a video feed that kept cutting out.

“Gambling comm…” Sunak said, before the screen froze. It stuttered in and out: “And police those… exactly what we are… doesn’t compromise… held to account…” Was he making more sense than usual, or less? 

“Nothing seems to work!” Sun Political Editor Harry Cole had told the prime minister at the start of their conversation. We had assumed this was a comment on the state of public services, but maybe he’d just been trying to get an internet connection in his building.

The screen flickered back to life. “You were there,” Cole was pointing out. “You must have known who you told!” This is indeed the great question of Gamblegate: the prime minister presumably knows whether he told his parliamentary aide that he was planning to call an election, just before that aide placed a bet. 

“These are really serious matters,” Sunak replied, and then the image froze completely. Sources watching with more reliable connections — mountaineers, people on trains going through tunnels, shipwrecked mariners on desert islands — report that the prime minister gave no further answer. But as your man in the room just down the corridor, I can tell you nothing. Perhaps he confessed that he has a massive short position on his own party, and is trying to see if he can get them down to no seats at all by July 4. 

A technician came in and turned off our feed. “THE SUN YOUTUBE,” he Googled, and got a result from NASA. This was greeted with an ironic cheer. In a past life, when I had to race to get headlines out a fraction of a second faster than rivals, I would have been frantic. Sketchwriting has different pressures. Eventually the IT man found the website he wanted, and we were able to join the 7,000 viewers currently watching, many of them not in the Sun headquarters. 

“This is about the future,” Sunak was saying. In our absence he had advanced up the snippiness scale. “I’ve got a plan,” he explained, tetchily. A plan for what? Who can say?

There were a lot of questions on immigration, and we learned that if we want to send an asylum seeker to Rwanda, we need to vote Conservative. More revealing was Sunak’s exchange with the member of the audience who described watching her father die, over 18 months, while waiting for a cancer diagnosis. The prime minister was sympathetic — “I can only apologise” — and promised to look into the delays in the case. But the woman pushed back. Her description of taking her dad to hospital one day and refusing to leave until a doctor spoke to them will have felt familiar to, well, anyone who’s had to deal with the NHS in the last few years. 

Over the course of his 40 minutes, he became increasingly tetchy, until we got to the full storm

Each time Sunak was challenged about something that didn’t work as it should, he would point to a policy and then say that if Starmer was prime minister, he wouldn’t do that. Over the course of his 40 minutes, he became increasingly tetchy, until we got to the full storm. “I was right then when I warned about Liz Truss,” he almost yelled, as though the last Conservative prime minister was nothing to do with this Conservative prime minister, “and that’s why you can trust me now when I warn you about Keir Starmer.” Does this make sense? Who can say.

When Starmer arrived he was calmer. The format suited him, because Cole, a newspaperman by training, let him talk, rather than interrupting as broadcast interviewers tend to. Starmer is long-winded, and any format where he can talk at length suits him. 

The result was that we got the best answer the Labour leader has yet given on the thorny issue of his service under Jeremy Corbyn. Every Labour MP, he said, had faced a dilemma as they wrestled with how to ensure the party was in the best state when Corbyn finally left. “We needed to have people in and fighting for the future of our party,” he said. “I knew there was always going to be an opportunity for a day after.”

Perhaps it got even better, but it’s hard to know, because at this point the feed cut out. “We did different… we were trying to ensure that the day after Jeremy Corbyn…” And he was frozen again. The country faces problems that Labour will struggle to fix, and so does The Sun’s IT department.

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