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18 July 2022

ITV’s Tory leadership debate was a parade of bizarre non-personalities

From stiff Liz Truss to Penny Mordaunt’s obsession with washing machines, this hour of TV was more buttock-clenching than a hot Pilates class.

By Rachel Cooke

I must be honest. By the time I came to watch ITV’s Conservative Party leadership debate, drink had been taken. Plus, it was as hot as Hades in our sitting room. Hysteria set in early. What a bunch of lunatics! If Tom “Did you know I used to be a soldier?” Tugendhat had donned combat gear for the duration of the proceedings, I would hardly have been surprised – and he’s one of the more sane among them. What policies do this lot have? What ideas for the future? The answer to such questions is, I’m afraid, none whatsoever. All we’ve got to go on at this point (not that it’s our choice) are their bizarre non-personalities; their strange speak-and-spell way of talking; their utterly unwarranted conviction that they would be good at being prime minister, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. It’s a mass delusion, and I am wondering what might be up with the drinking water – lead pipes? – down at the Palace of Westminster.

They kicked off infomercial-style – a few seconds in which to make their pitch – which was buttock-clenching to the point of being a perfectly good substitute for a full hour of hot Pilates. I closed my eyes and thought of Roger Allam: his soothing new series, Murder in Provence, would be along soon. But this was only the beginning of the derangement. In the next hour Penny Mordaunt would suggest they should have requested a “spinner” to assign the questions (does she have a secret Twister habit, or what?); Kemi Badenoch would admit that she does, after all, “believe” in climate change (Kemi, dear, it is not the tooth fairy, and we are not your children); Rishi Sunak would praise his billionaire in-laws so fulsomely I began to think he must be after a new stately home; and Tugendhat would go ape with a camouflage net, throwing it over Liz Truss to put her off her stride. Ha ha! I’m only joking about the camo net. In fact, it was Truss who went tonto. “I have faced down Sergei Lavrov!” she shouted. “I will call out Putin!”

Ah, yes. Liz. (Or as we call her in our house, Lynn, a name that seems to suit her so much better.) The mind boggles at the thought of this confrontation, for all that her favourite word is “unleash” (when excited, she sounds like she’s writing a bio for a swinging website). Putin, being Russian, will not remember the Seventies children’s series Pipkins, which was about a puppet workshop. But I do, and Truss brings it to mind: Sunak says she is a socialist, but in fact she is the human puppet the workshop crafted from felt, fabric remnants and tinned ham before they decided to stick only with animals.

The voice is strangled, the eyes are dead, the arms are permanently at the side of her body, rigid and lifeless. When Julie Etchingham, the debate’s ice cool chair, asked the contenders to raise a hand if they’d voted to leave the EU, Truss, who has reinvented herself as a Brexiteer, was obviously longing to lift hers. She couldn’t, however badly tempted. Nevertheless, I noticed that it bobbed very slightly, as if someone high above – the shade of Mrs Thatcher? – was tugging lightly on a string. “I’m not the slickest presenter here,” she said, when the panel was asked to identify its talents (the hardest question of all, given the complete absence of charisma, brains, ideas, empathy and humour on display). Uh oh. There followed a small silence, during which I half expected the Conservative equivalent of tumbleweed – a tattered string of Union Jack bunting, perhaps, or a torn “Get Brexit Done” poster – to blow across the set. Poor Lynn. For once, no one felt able to disagree.

Since I began writing this, tomorrow’s Sky debate has been cancelled, Sunak and Truss having pulled out (another contender is eliminated later today, 18 July, so there would only have been two left for poor, dear, disappointed Kay Burley to humiliate). Well, you can hardly blame them. Rather than lobbing custard pies at one another in public, their time is quite obviously going to be better spent offering fondant fancies to the electorate in private (“Cherry Bakewell, Mr Raab? No, we don’t do croissants here.”) As a result, we’ll probably never know, now, in what Mordaunt actually believes, let alone why she’s so concerned specifically for those without washing machines. Whatever happens next, Pen and her notions of “targeted support” – the phrase brings to mind Marks & Spencer’s latest FlexiFit bra, which may be quite deliberate – will be forever more a chimera: a debate will-o’-the-wisp whose sole job was to titillate Conservative Home’s dottier and more excitable readers.

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[See also: The second Tory leadership debate exposed the party’s brutal divisions]

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This article appears in the 20 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Broken Party