In the challenger v the gaffer election event, the audience was the winner

Well, there’s good news for Sacha Baron Cohen: The Brothers Grimsby is no longer the most excruciating thing set in Grimsby. Asked to name something that might endear him to the public, the exhausted-looking prime minister basically spent a long time gibbering “I like sweets.” As someone famously deprived of a Sky subscription as a child, Rishi Sunak would not have been able to watch this televised “leaders’ event” when he was growing up. The tragedy is that Sky News is now free, so he’d be able to watch himself get repeatedly laughed at by the audience. (Not that that was entirely plain sailing for Keir Starmer, who seemed surprised to find his trusty “my father was a toolmaker” line drawing a burst of jaded cackles too.)

Anyway: Starmer v Sunak. The challenger v the gaffer. They call Rishi Sunak the gaffer because he will do you a gaffe at least three times a day. In terms of TV spectacle and drama, last week’s debate between these two largely had the flavour of leafing through a wooden furniture catalogue, with each leading man occasionally outshone by his lectern. That said, I keep reading that what every single one of the British people crave is for politics to be really, really boring. In which case: sorry, Mr Bates vs the Post Office – you just lost the Bafta.

This leaders’ event was a lot livelier. During the hilariously overhyped buildup, Sky even showed footage of all the ministers and spinners arriving, as if it was the Met Gala or something. Oh look, there’s the home secretary. We were moments away from a reporter screaming: “James! James! WHO ARE YOU WEARING?”

Warm-up had come courtesy of ITV’s much-anticipated interview with Sunak, who can now be judged to have deserted the Normandy beaches for an unfortunately timed minibreak in Saipan. There really isn’t a whole lot of him left. Having volunteered his teenage Sky subscription struggle, Sunak declined to be drawn on Nigel Farage. “I really don’t know him”, was his verdict on the Ukip leader, a straight-to-meme line reminiscent of Mariah Carey being confronted with the concept of J-Lo and shutting the interviewer down with a withering “I don’t know her” .

Then it was over to Sky. This wasn’t a debate, in that the leaders didn’t interact with each other. Each was grilled for 20 minutes by Sky’s political editor Beth Rigby, then took audience questions for a further 25. Prospect-wise that sounds a bit like getting Real Madrid to have a kick about on their own for the first half, then letting Barcelona do it for the second, and claiming that’s the best way to decide who won the match. A el not-very-clásico is likely to ensue.

It was better than that, though still mainly one for the nerds. Even with Rigby’s admirably scrappy and sparky variations on a theme, this entire genre of political scrutiny can feel so grindingly rehearsed as to be terminally non-revelatory. The public would learn infinitely more if Sunak and Starmer had to do a Taskmaster task. But the best thing about this iteration was Sky letting the audience questioners reply to the leaders’ “replies”.

Starmer, who went first, was accused by one audience member of having morphed into a “political robot” – only for his software to appear to momentarily freeze, before reloading an earlier anecdote about “coming into politics late”, which may be an answer to a question. Though not this one. “You don’t seem to answer the question,” concluded the audience member, prompting Starmer to wheel out some other answers to some other questions. “I need a quick answer,” Rigby kept saying. And I needed a margarita. But neither of those, regrettably, was happening.

Still, watching at home on TV, I felt fortunate to have been spared another turn in the spin room, to which Sky News cut before and in the immediate wake of the debate. Here, viewers could watch infestations from the various parties explaining how – whatever you thought you’d just seen – you’d actually just watched their guy bleed the other guy dry. Truly, this room is one of the most cursed spaces in British politics. Let The Wrong Ones In. I noted there was no sign of that fabled safe-hands media performer, Grant “supermajority” Shapps, who may well be encased in a supermax coffin of earth for the remainder of the campaign.

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So, who won this debate that wasn’t a debate? Sky and YouGov’s instant poll found 64% of people thought this latest bout went to Starmer, while a mere 36% in favour of Sunak. The prime minister just edged it last week, and no doubt would say that in Grimsby he was hoping for a draw. The trouble is, he looks as if he’s hoping for his team to throw in the towel.

The Guardian