Does it matter, anymore, which one of them wins? Will anyone even know? The next election is only two years away, by which point anyone who watched the BBC leaderships debate will still be so haunted by the program’s first 15 seconds that they will be incapable of any meaningful interaction with the world around them.
I’ve watched it over twenty times now and I still don’t get quite how they did it. The camera moves. Someone in the audience can be seen moving their hand on their lap. So it’s definitely real life. But the two people, one of whom really will be prime minister in six weeks’ time, had been frozen in aspic. Liz Truss stared ahead, face fixed in a grin every bit as rictus as her arms, which stopped motionless, as if her puppet master had just seen a ghost.
Sunak’s eyes seemed to widen and then narrow again. On the 10th viewing they actually seem to start speaking to you. Why are we doing this? They say. Are we absolutely sure this isn’t going to look very, very odd indeed?
Mercifully, his chin moves a fraction at this point, bringing a vague ending to the longest, weirdest 15 seconds quite possibly in all television history.
After that, sadly, it went very far downhill. It wasn’t just that it was puerile, rude, juvenile, irrelevant and ridiculous. It was all those things, and usually all of them at once, as well as entirely delusional.
Rishi Sunak’s going to cause a recession, apparently. Liz Truss is going to pursue policies that will require interest rates to go up to seven per cent, which might not cause a recession but will result in very large numbers of people losing their house. That’s what both of them said about the other, anyway. And neither of them can possibly have a clue who’s right, because that’s economics. That’s the whole of the debate. It’s all unfalsifiable and so it can rattle on for six more weeks, with a lot more heat and precisely no more light.
Liz Truss actually called Sunak’s assessment of her plans “project fear.” That one’s not going to get past a smart alec of Sunak’s calibre. Actually, he pointed out, “she was part of project fear, I wasn’t.”
Truss squirmed. As you would do when you can feel yourself passing fully through the looking glass. There they both were, arguing about who was the biggest Brexiteer, about what a load of rubbish “Project Fear” turned out to be, at the very moment there’s a 4-hour queue at the port of Dover, precisely because “Project Fear” had always been project reality, but both the people who are going to be the next actual prime minister cannot possibly do any more than just pretend none of it is happening.
(At the very end, Sophie Raworth asked both of them whether the queues at Dover had anything to do with Brexit, but this was the “quickfire” bit in which both were only allowed to answer with one word. They both said “no” and that was the end of it, even though the answer, absolutely unequivocally is “yes.” Yes yes yes yes yes. Yes, undoubtedly. As a matter of complete and utter certainty. But there wasn’t time for that.)
Still, there wasn’t much time left for that kind of thing. The fact that it has become nigh on impossible for families to go abroad at the start of the school holidays, and it is absolutely definitely because of Brexit? No time for that. Far too boring. Instead we had six minutes on whether either of them would have Boris Johnson in their cabinet, to which the entire world knows the answer, on both counts, is no.
And then there was the six-minute long segment on Liz Truss’s £4.50 earrings, and their contrast to a £3,500 suit Rishi Sunak once wore.
Still, Rishi Sunak wants everyone to have the opportunity to buy a £3,500 suit. He wants everyone to be able to afford to go to Winchester College and, after that, ideally marry the daughter of a billionaire, because that’s what happens if you’re just prepared to work hard and make sacrifices.
Rishi is a Conservative, after all. And that’s what being a Conservative is all about.
Well, not quite. Actually the most “Conservative of Conservative values is sound money.” He said that. He didn’t quite extrapolate on whether spending £3,500 on a suit is the best example of sound money but that’s mere details.
Sound money isn’t about buying the odd luxury. It’s about being responsible with money. Managing it carefully. Keeping a general eye on where it is. In a previous hustings, Sunak really did claim that his biggest weakness was “obsessing over small details.” And yet, somehow, he of sound money, apparently didn’t know where his own family fortune was domiciled. And nor did he realise, for almost six whole years, that he should have surrendered his US green card a very long time ago, and was paying large amounts of tax he didn’t actually owe. Yes, the “sound money” guy really was paying tens of thousands of pounds to US tax authorities, mainly for the privilege of not having to queue up at passport control with the foreigners when he lands in California.
He had mastered one detail though. He had learned how to pronounce Faisal Islam’s name, which Liz Truss had not managed. Faisal Islam has been a correspondent on mainstream UK television news for very nearly twenty years. And, as is the custom, at the end of every single report he has ever produced, he says his own name. Which is Faisal Islam. And it’s pronounced Fye-sal. It rhymes with Bye-sal. So it was somewhat odd that Liz Truss called him Fayezel every time she addressed him, which was at least four times, entirely unbowed and unbothered by being very obviously the only person who was doing so.
She must have heard Sunak, Raworth and Chris Mason him called Faisal – not Fayezel – twenty times or more. By this point, she must have decided she was committed. She was auditioning for the job of prime minister. To start calling the bloke by his actual name would have been a sign of weakness.
Still, it was a prime time slot and there was plenty there for the casual punter to enjoy. Mainly, the denuded fact that the two of them visibly hate each other. Lots of people have absolutely no interest in politics whatsoever. But everyone loves to hear a middle-aged married couple having a blazing row and on that front they certainly didn’t disappoint.
Not quite the entire country has has the chance, this week, to spend several days in a hot car with a hated spouse while queuing up to go on an unbearable family holiday, and in that regard Sunak vs Truss did an excellent job of bringing their own personal band of mean-spirited and vitriolic loathing to the small screen.
Long may it continue, though where it goes next, no one quite knows. In these kinds of low rent reality TV formats, producers have been known to stage an intervention long before it gets this toxic. The Tory party must know it has left it far too late.