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20 June 2024updated 21 Jun 2024 9:13am

Question Time Leaders’ Special: not even Starmer had a good night

As before, the Labour leader was weakest on the Corbyn question.

By Andrew Marr

The most remarkable takeaway from BBC’s Question Time leaders’ special was that Rishi Sunak didn’t punch anybody. He looked very much as if he wanted to, clashing snippily with audience members (at one point getting shouts of “shame!” from those who disagreed with him over the European Court of Human Rights). But, he didn’t actually whack a voter.

As this disastrous election campaign careers on, the Prime Minister has developed what can only be described as an angry smile – both very angry and very smiley. He is under extreme pressure and must be close to blowing up. That he hasn’t lost it in public so far is a major endorsement for Hinduism.

Sunak pitched particularly hard and most effectively to anti-immigrant audience members – he has honed his eloquence on this in response to the challenge Reform and Nigel Farage have mounted on the question. He was applauded for it.

Challenged by a furious voter about the latest Tory betting scandal, he said that he was as angry as anyone but refused to cut the relevant candidates loose and looked as if he was about to be sick. He got no cut-through on the NHS or his national service plan.

Fiona Bruce, who is frankly superb – well briefed and able to pick the perfect moment to crisply but politely cut in, the result of many many hours of hosting the show – skewered him about the lack of specific sanctions for those who declined to do national service, so that he had to take refuge in a Royal Commission… And we all know what that means.

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Yet at some level it is impressive and admirable that Sunak keeps on fighting. After the last few weeks, most sentient humans would be huddled under the nearest table in the foetal position, biting their fists and muttering every filthy word they’d ever heard. But Rishi is still here, still talking about Keir Starmer and tax. It is not impossible that some voters will come back to the Tories at the end of the campaign purely out of admiration for his doggedness.

As before, Starmer was weakest on the Corbyn question: Bruce skewered the Labour leader by repeatedly asking him whether he meant it when he said he would be a great prime minister. Almost all of his responses are now rehearsed and familiar, though he struggled over the lack of a migration target and the consequences for public services and housing. He now uses the word “progressive” to describe himself. “I am a common sense politician” will become a refrain. Compared to previous outings, he seemed relaxed though he must be careful of giving the impression that he is coasting to victory.

We have a curious exhibition of cross-dressing when it comes to villainy. Keir Starmer compares Sunak to Jeremy Corbyn; last night Sunak retaliated by comparing Keir Starmer to… Liz Truss. But all this is much too clever to impress normal people. Like so much that goes over the heads of the electorate, it smells of the over-excited spin room and the callow research nerd.

But a carefully selected audience, at least, has a clear and unforgiving memory. Ed Davey, gamely channelling his “sad bear” vibe, was badly beaten up over the Lib-Dem coalition student tuition fees U-turn. He was then precisely questioned over his role as post office minister in 2010, when he first refused to meet Alan Bates during the horizon scandal. Davey told the audience: “I made two big mistakes.” He did all right but the plain people of Britain, it seems, are bored of seeing him scooting down waterslides.

The SNP’s affable undertaker John Swinney, gained loud applause for his policy of re-joining the European Union and for choosing Starmer over Sunak as his preferred winner. He was the most passionate sounding contender but failed to win the room by dodging the question of whether he’d keep trying for independence referendums until he got the result he wanted.

This version of the Question Time format – which ditched the horseshoe table of dissent and cut-across for these four individual interrogations – lacked the drama or the follow through of a proper interview. The party leaders were all set up as willing candidates for the top job (though of course it is not exactly a competitive race). And, I’m not sure that (from the audience’s point of view) any of them quite cut the mustard for the role on offer.

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