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  1. Election 2024
10 June 2024

The election debates: as petty and embarrassing as a staff-room squabble

The politicians arguing on BBC and ITV reminded me of the teachers at my comprehensive after too much Mellow Bird’s.

By Rachel Cooke

I watched the BBC’s election debate on iPlayer, with a plan to fast-forward the really buttock-clenching parts. But, my God, I had to be strict with myself: if I’d carried on as I began, I would have seen only about ten minutes in all; truly, these productions are better for the glutes than hours of Pilates, and when they’re not embarrassing, they’re boring. Of course, not everyone agrees. “[They] are very dramatic,” squeaked Nick Watt, the political editor of Newsnight, afterwards. But he would say that, wouldn’t he? One suspects his editor knows differently, which may be why sitting next to him on the sofa that evening was Boris Johnson’s former aide Cleo Watson, the title of whose new book – Cleavage – flashed up helpfully as she commenced her pontificating (I’m amazed Newsnight’s ratings appear to be up: in its new bargain-basement incarnation, it’s basically ITV’s Loose Women, with added blokes and the odd person who used to work at Vice). 

But like some filibustering politician, I’m getting wildly off point. These debates are entertainment, not current affairs. I’m not going to bother telling you what the SNP’s Stephen Flynn said about Nigel Farage, or what Daisy Cooper of the Lib Dems said of Paddy Ashdown (she was off point, too): let’s focus instead on performance. There were seven politicians on screen – the others were Penny Mordaunt, Angela Rayner, Rhun ap Iorwerth (Plaid Cymru) and Carla Denyer (Greens) – and collectively, they reminded me to a Proustian degree (no, not Mr Farage’s favourite writer) of the teachers at my comprehensive after a Friday lunch hour spent drinking too much Mellow Bird’s and reading Ken Baker’s latest evil directive (younger readers: Baker was a Tory education secretary, back in the day). With the exception of Cooper, who has the same vibe as the woman who gave me my last mammogram (“All right, sweetheart, just SQUIDGE”), they were ratty as all hell, and unable to disguise it. Well, OK, I guess Mordaunt had a go at disguising it. The hair! I bet you a magnum of Elnett she listened to Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” before she came on. You could see it in the eyes. 

We last saw Ms Mordaunt at the Coronation, but for this special evening assembly, she’d no giant sword – only her finger, to be stabbed in the direction of Ms Rayner for as long as Mishal Husain (the BBC’s very own Ofsted inspector) would allow it. Rayner, in red, looked faintly murderous: as if Mordaunt had sprung an extra playground duty on her. Meanwhile, somewhere to her right, Farage was staring dreamily into the middle distance. His furious condemnation of Rishi Sunak’s hasty departure from the extended history module that was the D-Day anniversary celebrations had no purchase once Mordaunt had deemed it “completely wrong” herself (she did this early doors, treachery seemingly best served, in her mind, as scaldingly hot as a canteen treacle pudding). And so it was that the only man on the school’s staff who understands Leg Before Wicket duly checked out: eyes glazed, jaw slack. In four weeks’ time, after all, these ruddy exams will be over – and God alone knows why people are so anxious about them. Mr Farage doesn’t give a toss how much revision his students do. 

Overall, the message was: don’t mention the B-word. (I mean Brexit, though other substitutes may work, and maybe we could turn this into a multiple-choice question.) It was the same three days earlier, when Sunak and Keir Starmer went head to head before Julie Etchingham on ITV – another ratty outing, this time for the more senior leadership team. Again, there was a lot of shouting, mostly over the £2,000 Mr Sunak believes Mr Starmer is going to charge the sixth form for their next ski trip (or something – in fact, Sunak’s figures might as well have had to do with the cost of five nights in Courchevel for all their basis in reality). 

“Gentlemen, lower your voices!” said Etchingham, whose energy is very Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins at these moments. Personally, I couldn’t tell how it had gone: if Sunak seemed snippy, Starmer seemed slow as a manatee. But on social media, Michael Gove was already frantically doing his marking in capital letters. “THE. CAT. IS. OUT. OF. THE. BAG,” he typed – a new and charming variation on “please try harder” that suggested to me a certain amount of panic. 

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[See also: Rishi Sunak’s D-Day departure was far worse than a gaffe]

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This article appears in the 12 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The hard-right insurgency