Sunak v Starmer: The ITV Debate review – it quickly becomes truly infuriating viewing

We have arguably become over-accustomed to telegenic, managerial slickness in election campaigns. Hooray, then, for the 2024 iteration of the Conservative party, whose campaign so far – with its drowned-rat Downing Street launch, eye-rolling audiences, photographs next to Exit signs, callbacks to the sinking of the Titanic and general air of hapless slapstick – seems determined to ignore the conventions of modern electioneering in favour of reanimating politics as pure cringe comedy. After two weeks of this pratfalling, observers have stopped invoking The Thick of It for fear of maligning Armando Iannucci’s peerless political satire for a lack of subtlety.

And yet on Rishi Sunak must go. He wanted six of these debates, no doubt reasoning that anything that might possibly shift the dial represents a gamble worth taking. Traditionally, they represent an opportunity for leaders to pitch themselves at the chunky percentage of voters who pay precisely zero attention to party politics between one general election campaign and the next. For millions of people, up to now, Keir Starmer will have existed as a just-about-ignorable ambient hum. Tonight is his first chance to introduce himself. Therefore, while his eagerness to inform us of his humble origins has become a running joke among Westminster insiders, the fact that his dad was a toolmaker and he grew up in a semi-detached estate house may be new information to thousands of undecided voters. Sunak, meanwhile, is the furlough guy, the rich guy, the helicopter guy, the losing-to-Liz Truss guy.

Presenter Julie Etchingham finds herself standing on a set that looks as if it’s been repurposed very quickly from the debate’s supporting act, Beat the Chasers. She will have her work cut out. It’s seemed clear from recent editions of Prime Minister’s Questions that these two men genuinely don’t like each other. Even in front of a carefully chosen audience of voters coming from a variety of perspectives and with a variety of grim, real-world problems, that antipathy soon becomes the dominant note of the debate.

It quickly becomes truly infuriating viewing. At least the pair’s clashes at PMQs only last 15 minutes or so. Paula, who can’t afford to turn her oven on during the week and must batch-cook her meals at the weekends, asks how the leaders will address this precarity. Perhaps inevitably, Sunak starts boasting about the furlough scheme, while very optimistically proclaiming “This election is about the future”. He would say that, wouldn’t he? For the Conservatives, the recent past is a dangerous realm, containing memories of Partygate and the aforementioned Truss. Meanwhile, Starmer sympathises but, in a pattern that will repeat into infinity, is unbelievably vague about what he might do about it. Paula must wonder why she bothered.

It’s impossible not to feel sorry for Etchingham throughout. At one point, as both men talk across each other and answer blunt, clear questions with evasions, she’s forced into a gambit sometimes employed by despairing school teachers and asks them to simply raise their hands in answer. Sunak in particular is tetchy and frequently rude – there are moments when it’s easy to see why his last televised debate ended in the ignominy of defeat to a woman eventually bested by a lettuce.

On it goes: more heat than light; sound and fury signifying little. Starmer gets into his stride in the environmental segment where his one actual idea (the Great British Energy company) contrasts favourably with Sunak’s gobsmacking hypocrisy (his daughters, apparently, ask him about this all the time and we’re going to meet our net zero targets “in a way that will save us money”). More danger arrives for Sunak in the shape of Mike, a young person. And sure enough, people are openly laughing at Sunak’s proposal of National Service.

skip past newsletter promotion

Sunak’s energy levels dropped by the end – initially, he relied on antagonism but soon started to resemble a cocksure Apprentice contestant who has volunteered to lead the product development round only to find himself pitching an app his team developed in 20 minutes to a room full of scowling tech entrepreneurs. Starmer, meanwhile, plodded on; a footballer running down the clock. For Sunak, it could have been worse. At least he didn’t faint or lose his voice or stand in front of any embarrassing signs. The pratfalls, for now, and in a very strictly controlled environment, are in abeyance. But an hour of this was a lot. Whether or not you agree with Starmer on the substance of whatever his offer to the nation might be, surely he’s right about one thing. We don’t need another five of these.

The Guardian