Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer went head-to-head last night for the final time before polling day. In the BBC’s Prime Ministerial Debate, hosted by Mishal Husain, the PM and Labour leader were grilled by a live audience in Nottingham. How did they both fare? Reaction columnists offer their take.

The punchline came just 15 minutes in – Gerald Warner

The early part of the proceedings was reminiscent of the election launch, with demonstrators outside doing a Steve Bray, clearly audible in the studio.

Just 15 minutes in, we got the punchline that most people had tuned in to hear: “My dad worked in a factory and…. (Yes, yes, go for it, Keir!) he was a toolmaker.” Bingo. After that, there seemed little point in staying tuned in, it could only be anticlimactic.

The intrinsic futility of this exercise lay in the fact that, of the two men, one had already demonstrated what he and his party had done to the country, while the other cannot be induced, under any circumstances, to admit what he intends to do – understandably, since Labour’s programme is to convert Britain into a replica of North Korea, without the functioning public services.

At just two points, Rishi Sunak gained momentary credibility: on welfare, where Starmer’s inarticulate waffle provoked the moderator to ask “Keir Starmer, what is wrong with what Rishi Sunak is saying?”; and on tax, when the man who is about to bleed the nation white reached desperately for a wise saw from Granny Starmer: “You can’t spend the same money twice.” It looked as if he was about to add topically that “The nights are fair drawing in,” but he desisted.

The closing brawl on immigration was a microcosm of this election campaign, with the man who admitted 2.4 million immigrants over the past two years denouncing the man who intends to exceed that record.

It was the same on gender, with Sunak condemning Starmer’s treatment of Rosie Duffield and promising to amend the Equality Act, which his party should have done in 2015, while Starmer’s weasel-worded qualification of his opportunist U-turn provoked a high-pitched squeal from someone transitioning in the back row of the audience.

Oh, for just two minutes of Nigel!

This was the least productive debate of the election – David Waywell

It’s a wonder that the BBC didn’t better anticipate the problem. The last election debate came from Nottingham Trent University whose building appeared to have the acoustic properties of a botanical garden. For the first half hour, the two leaders were competing with the low-level hum of dissent from outside somewhere on the campus grounds. It didn’t last too long. Soon, the uncontrolled screaming and shouting ensured that even the protestors couldn’t hear themselves think…

None of it was edifying, all of it a practical demonstration of what politics has become in the age of prep and polish. The whole event felt like the work of some demonic focus group. On one side, we had a dispassionate version of Blairism 2.0, projecting calm but without any of the smiley-smiley charm of “Just call me Tony”. On the other side, there was the leader of a party being reshaped through some strange remote voodoo by Nigel Farage. The former tried to speak softly, even if it sometimes made his policies sound platitudinous. The latter just wanted to disrupt by yelling into his opponent’s face the words “Rwanda”, “trans” and “tax rises”. No wonder Starmer chose to wear glasses. They functioned more like a rudimentary spittle mask.

The result had to be the least productive debate of this election and, arguably, of any past election. It’s hard to imagine that Ted Heath was ever reduced to shouting down Harold Wilson in the manner of Rishi Sunak bawling at Sir Keir Starmer. Somewhere in Westminster, Steve Bray will have had his fingers in his ears as he begged for some peace and quiet …

Yet it’s also hard to argue that Sunak’s approach was entirely ineffective. His assaults left the Labour leader struggling at times. Conversely, it’s not clear the adversarial approach suited the Prime Minister who sounded increasingly like a man already feeling fate dragging him by his heels toward obscurity and/or sunny California. It’s also remarkable how much it felt like a rehearsal of another debate that will be held tonight in CNN’s Atlanta studio, where we’ll see a technocrat face off against a populist.

Here, technocrat Starmer tried to stick to a script heavy with modest manifesto promises. Sunak, meanwhile, appeared to have been studying the Trump playbook, even if acting like a feral terrier savaging a sock puppet doesn’t suit his character (he’s more sock puppet being mauled by a terrier). Sunak tried to snap and snarl, constantly yapping as Starmer tried to speak in that clipped manner he has. The Prime Minister himself made bold promises short of “Making Britain Great Again” and he might have spoken some truth when he claimed that Starmer wasn’t being straight with the audience, but, then, neither man was there to be straight with the audience. It was a matter of who could stick to their script, which they both successfully did from the bitter start, through the bitter middle, and right up to the bitter end.

Was there a winner? Does it matter? Is it even possible to win in a hyper-reductive format that has grown so stale it no longer serves its purpose? A debate it most certainly was not. It would have been just as accurate to describe it as “a Beluga whale”, “Harry Kane’s right boot”, or “the small Norwegian town of Ljosland”.

The two leaders finished with prepared statements – Sunak’s too wordy, Starmer’s better by being rhetorically simple and employing repetition – but the whole sorry night had amounted to a sequence of prepared statements, sometimes spoken but usually yelled. By the end, it felt like even the protestors had been scared away by all the shouting. 

I can’t say anybody could blame them. 

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