Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer should be congratulated. They have come in for a lot criticism and slights during this election campaign. At least they have not ducked exposing themselves and their policies to the UK public through media appearances as other party leaders have done in recent elections. 

Compliments should also be extended to Trump and Biden, the main antagonists in the US Presidential Election.

This Wednesday in Nottingham, Sunak and Starmer will have their final confrontation in the BBC Election Debate. Biden and Trump are due to face off in CNN studios in Atlanta the following evening.

Debates are back in business, in a symbiosis between ageing political leaders and mainstream media, even if younger voters tied to social media on their mobile phones may not have noticed. 

During this general election campaign, the two UK party leaders have subjected themselves to more scrutiny than any set of leaders since Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and David Cameron in 2010. 

By polling day, they will have taken part in two face to face debates, on BBC and ITV, and in three debate formats on Sky News, BBC Question time and Sun TV’s Never Mind The Ballots, in which they, separately, face questions from an audience and presenter. 

Sunak and Starmer have also recorded numerous “sit down” interviews with mainstream broadcasters. Indeed Sunak was so eager to satisfy ITV that he dashed off early from the D-Day commemoration. These sessions are typically no longer than 25 minutes, not quite the lengthy inquisitions presided over Brian Walden and Robin Day in years past, but a lot better than nothing.

Whether they intended it or not, the participation of the main party leaders in debates and interviews has also boosted the “other” parties’ access to prime time. The Liberal Democrats, SNP, Greens and Reform UK have all benefitted as broadcasters lived up to their obligations to balance their election coverage. This may explain why Labour and Conservatives together are predicted to take their smallest share of the total vote since the 1980s. On the other hand, Nigel Farage’s contrarian take on Putin’s war in Ukraine, as teased out by Nick Robinson, is a significant feature of this election. 

In the US, it is a two-horse race, or, if Democrat and Republican mascots are respected, between a donkey and an elephant. As in the UK, the part debates play in political campaigning is evolving. 

In 64 years of Presidential debates, this is the first time that the two main candidates have debated before the conventions at which they are officially endorsed as the nominees.

Biden and Trump have sidelined the Presidential Debates Commission and done their own deal for two debates, one this week, the other in September. The Commission traditionally set the rules and dates for debates to take place in the autumn immediately before Election day in early November. Bob Bauer, Biden’s lawyer who often plays Trump in their debate “prep”, says “it was doomed to obsolescence eventually” precisely because of its independent attitude to making the arrangements. 

There is no chance of a third party candidate qualifying for privately agreed debates, much to the chagrin of this year’s fringe runner, Robert F. Kennedy Junior

By debating so early however, Biden and Trump may have set their own unique bear trap. If one or other of them turns an abysmal performance, there is just a possibility that their party’s disappointment could force them out before the convention. 

There was some discussion of whether the two elderly candidates should be sitting down – as is customary in French presidential debates. They have decided to stick with standing at podiums.

For Biden, the main danger is a serious “senior moment”. Age is clearly catching up with the 81-year-old. In opinion polls, a majority of Americans think he is too old to be standing again. He has carried out his presidential duties for the past four years without a major hitch, although, in some recent public appearances, he has appeared to freeze momentarily, losing track of what is going on. After Biden’s State of the Union address this year, Trump claimed the president might be using drugs to keep going, telling talk radio: “he was all jacked up at the beginning. By the end, he was fading fast.”

Trump has had cognitive troubles of his own. Last week, Fox News Channel cut away from a Trump rally, apparently because the 78-year-old was no longer making any sense. Trump has been musing publicly whether he should be “tough and nasty” in the CNN encounter or “nice and calm.” 

Trump’s threatening demeanour during his debates with Hillary Clinton and his first debate in 2020 with Biden is considered not to have helped him. When Trump was trying to shout him down out of turn, Biden scored the best line with “Will you shut up, man?”.

At first, there was surprise when the Trump camp agreed to Biden and CNN’s proposals that the debate should be in a studio without an audience and that the other debaters microphone should be switched off out of turn. Subsequently, some Biden supporters argue that Trump might have done himself harm if his off-mic behaviour had been heard by the TV audience. 

The Republican debate coach, Bill O’Donnell, hopes that the debaters are going to talk about “the issues rather than themselves”. Mitch Landrieu, the co-chair of Biden’s campaign disagrees. He hopes that after the confrontation with Trump, “people are going to know that he’s a twice impeached convicted felon who has been found to have defamed somebody, sexually abused somebody and gone bankrupt six times.”

Starmer and Sunak are no match for the two colourful presidential candidates. They carry less baggage and are sometimes considered uninteresting. So far, there have been no stand-out moments in their clashes to match “Shut up man” or “I agree with Nick”. Audiences have been generally cooler toward Sunak. Starmer regrets that he did not sufficiently rebut the £2000 a family tax charge in their first debate. His response to an audience member on Sky News in Grimsby who suggested he was “robotic”, seemed to confirm the original jibe.

Debates matter because they create the space for viewers to see and hear from their would-be rulers on the record. Drama is not guaranteed. Debates still command live audiences of millions. They also create moments and memes to be recorded on social media for the increasingly important digital audience to look at when they want.

I have long championed the austere public service model of the Presidential Debates Commission which BBC, ITV and Sky collaborated on so effectively in 2010. It now seems that this has not taken root here and is being disregarded in the US.  Broadcasters and politicians have their own reasons for making private agreements. This year, both ITV and CNN are including advertising breaks in their debates. 

What matters to the electorate is that proper debates should take place, fairly and of sufficient length to be worthwhile. So I commend Biden, Trump, Sunak and Starmer for their part in debates this year. 

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