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22 October 2018updated 09 Jul 2021 7:38am

What’s the point of election debates?

By Rachel Cooke

On the day of the ITV election debate, Jeremy Corbyn was in Whitby, enjoying some chips at the town’s Magpie Café. Well, you can’t blame him. Before the debates – he and Boris Johnson appeared neither in the BBC’s 29 November offering, nor in the one on ITV on 1 December – there was talk that the two leaders of our biggest political parties are basically scaredy-cats: talk I was prepared to believe. But then I watched these fatuous beauty contests – someone has to! – and I began to think that it wasn’t fear that had driven them away, but the prospect of unendurable boredom. I don’t know where Boris Johnson was on either occasion, but if he’d only been at home, reading the manual for his and Carrie’s new dishwasher, it would doubtless have been more interesting than listening to Rebecca Long-Bailey talk about her “transformation fund” (and no, she was not referring to money she’d put aside for a trip to Zara).

The debates lasted two hours. Two hours. Okay, this is shorter than The Irishman. But it’s still a long time to spend listening to a load of charisma-free zones regurgitate the mini speeches they over-rehearsed earlier. If Andrew Neil marinates politicians enticingly in extra virgin olive oil, rosemary and garlic before throwing them on a hot grill until they’re thoroughly browned off, what do the debates do? The answer is: absolutely nothing. Unappetising isn’t the word. Occasionally, a politician will emerge looking a bit stupid. Mostly, though, like so many ready meals, they make no impression at all. Only the memory of Richard Tice’s appearance in the BBC debate lingers in my mind, and that was because, when I first caught sight of the chairman of the Brexit Party, I mistook him for Richard Madeley.

Later, I googled Tice, wanting to know a bit more about his hair, which is very David-Van-Day-out-of-Dollar; apparently, in 2017, he appeared at number 90 on broadcaster Iain Dale’s list of the Top 100 Most Influential People on the Right. Hmm. In my list of the Most Hopeless People in Politics Right Now – hey, pop-pickers, shall I turn it into a podcast? – Rishi Sunak, who appeared for the Tories in both debates, is currently sitting pretty at number 20 (look, there’s a lot of competition). The slow-blinking; the teenage inability ever to meet a woman’s eye; the plodding yet cheery way with half-truths and broken promises. Seriously, he’s got it all. That said, he has a way to go before he gets even close to Labour’s Richard Burgon (number ten, and predicted to challenge Dominic Raab for the number one spot before Christmas). ITV could have stuck Funny Mr Potato Head behind his lectern and no one would have noticed. No, that’s not true. It’s possible the standard of debate would have gone up slightly.

The only grown-ups in the room were Caroline Lucas and Nicola Sturgeon. They’re not on my list. Nigel Farage, who made it to the ITV debate, probably because he thought Julie Etchingham would be a softer touch than Nick “I’m-on-the-side-of-the-viewer” Robinson, hovers at number 50. He looked knackered: like a bloke who’s spent eight evenings on the trot in the pub, with only a few bags of cheese and onion to soak up the London Pride. But in a world of evasion and equivocation, he has a certain putrid clarity.

Adam Price, the leader of Plaid Cymru, has something of the pulpit about him. He brings to mind the Rev Bernice Woodall in The League of Gentlemen, which I find disturbing. Jo Swinson, with her statement earrings and her sing-song voice, would once have done very well playing a character in Balamory, while Rebecca Long-Bailey gives out a distress signal that is uniquely her own in the form of her eyebrows (their neurotic, overplucked neatness speaks of a certain anxiety, one perhaps born of the fact that the words “honest broker”, when used to explain Corbyn’s “neutral” position on Brexit, are the most embarrassing she’s ever had to say out loud). Who won these debates? So far as I could see, no one did. Even the studio audiences, there entirely voluntarily, looked stupefied. “Why I am here?” read the huge invisible signs above their heads. “And where is the bar?” 

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This article appears in the 04 Dec 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What we want