Social media, which usually agrees about nothing, was close to united in one thing about the televised Conservative leadership debate: the real winner was Julie Etchingham, the moderator of the event. She was adept in the way she enabled Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt to set out their stalls and then have a go at each other – with only a couple of moments when they hurtled out of control. And when the politicians evaded the point, or if there was a news line to pursue, she hit them hard with her own questions. It was a stellar performance, which confirms her in the very top rank of UK news presenters.
If Etchingham was the most obvious victor, so was the ITV production team. After the frightful porridge that the BBC made of their leadership debate, ITV got all the basics right. In fairness, it is easier to make a programme work with 2 candidates rather than 5; but ITV resisted any temptation to emulate the BBC’s bizarre bar-stool seating arrangements, and it avoided the awkwardness of questioners appearing only on screen and not in the studio. It was good to have a programme based in the north of England and whoever selected the studio audience deserves praise. They seemed sane and at times even good-humoured, which is quite a contrast with the angry folk who often get themselves on to Question Time. The BBC also had bad experiences with the Cambridge debate in the 2017 election and with their Westminster event in the 2015 campaign, which both seemed to have noisy partisan claques in them – so it was a pleasant change to have people who behaved like normal citizens. Channel 4 had a similar success in their programme moderated by Krishan Guru-Murphy at the start of the campaign.
Yet the debate about debates will continue. Are they worth doing at all? There’s a perfectly understandable line of thought that notes the puny size of the electorate for this contest; the fact that many Tory members will have voted already; and then the turn-off factor of two men talking loudly over each other on national television. But there is evidence of public demand for this kind of programme. The BBC debate was watched by 5.3m people and ITV recorded an average of 4.3m – both of which are extremely good ratings for any show in a peaktime summer schedule. Schedulers should have spotted by now that they can both serve the public interest and boost their audiences by the right kind of special programming.
Debates are, rightly, only part of it: I’m looking forward to Andrew Neil seeking to skewer both candidates in his consecutive interviews with them on the BBC on Friday night. But the gigabytes of media chatter about debates do point to their ability to make news (see this morning’s headlines) and to shine a light on our leaders’ strengths and weaknesses (even if they’re more the latter). The recent United States Democratic candidates’ debate provided some electric moments, especially in the exchanges between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden – and they have significantly moved some of the polling numbers at this early stage of the campaign. US broadcasters have come up with a structure and rules that enable a debate to happen even when there are 20 candidates and it would be a bizarre view to say that this kind of thing shouldn’t happen.
The problem in the UK is that debates are still not cemented into the political culture. That’s why every election has a ritual in which the underdog challenges the frontrunner and they bash each other with their handbags until something, grudgingly, happens, or the event collapses because the parties can’t agree on the format. It is unthinkable that a US presidential candidate would be able to avoid debates altogether, as Theresa May did in 2017. But the opprobrium that May received for not appearing may just be enough of a spur to ensure that something substantive does happen in the next campaign – and Sky News have rightly been pushing for this to be a commitment. The success of last night’s event should give this initiative fresh energy. In particular, the broadcasters should agree that a format like ITV’s is one that works: impeccable moderator, a manageable size of panel, a sensible audience, clear rules on who should speak and when. In other words, put the politicians into a position where they don’t have any excuses for not appearing; and let the electorate judge them on what they see.