As the Spain vs Italy match kicked off last night, so too did a lively BBC’s Question Time Leaders’ Debate, creating a third battle – of TV remotes – in households across Britain. During the Question Time election special, hosted by Fiona Bruce, a live audience in York was given the chance to directly interrogate the four men: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Labour leader Keir Starmer, Lib Dem leader Ed Davey and SNP leader John Swinney. Who had the best – and worst – night? Reaction columnists, Jenny Hjul and David Waywell, give their take.

Poor Sunak now just stands there – David Waywell

Rishi Sunak is beginning to display all the dexterity of megalithic stone dodging a fire extinguisher filled with the orange stuff. The poor guy now just stands there. Whoomf! Another face of the corn powder. He blinks and says something about Labour’s tax policy. Whoomf! His tiny voice now speaks from within an expanding cloud of burnt sienna. “Hey,” it says. “Did I mention I want to lower your taxes?”

The problem is that nothing (except the corn powder) is sticking for Sunak. He came out to a hostile audience and his position was summed up with a pointed question about the current betting scandal. It’s sad to see Sunak carrying the can for other people’s failures. It’s not his fault that the Tories have been intellectually spent for half a decade and only won the last election due to the Corbyn effect. As much as he was convincing on the matter of corruption, they are allegations symbolic of a greater rot.

The most telling moment of the night was his response to a question about leaving the European Convention on Human Rights. It sums up his problem and the problem now faced by centre-right Tories who should push Farage to one side as Labour did with Corbyn. Sunak’s answer earned him loud cheers from a few in the audience but he’s committing the Trumpian error of amplifying the concerns of your base at the expense of the majority. It also earned him jeers and cries of “shame”. Maybe it’s time to offer him protected monuments status.

Ninety minutes earlier, we’d had the first surprise of the evening when Ed Davey didn’t ride in on a pedalo, yet he gave the most natural performance of the night. Softly spoken and evincing compassion in a way that didn’t feel forced, where he didn’t at all convince was on the observation that the Lib Deb manifesto makes the kind of big budget promises that can only be made by a party that knows it won’t win power. But he’ll have won some people over. 

John Swinney might as well have ridden the elephant into the room because, even though it was enormous and painted bright yellow, nobody addressed it. Why was the leader of the Scottish Nationalists answering questions in York from an English audience? The answer, obviously, is that these were the leaders of the UK’s four biggest parties, but that didn’t diminish the sense that his half an hour was tangential to the main themes of the evening. The focus on questions of Scottish independence and the party’s internal problems made it hard for Swinney to present a bigger vision or make a convincing case for his inclusion. 

By then, if anybody hadn’t switched over to watch Gregg Wallace ride a digger on BBC2, they got to see Keir Starmer excavating the centre ground of politics. It’s not complicated except if you’re a Tory thinking that the way back into power is by veering further to the right. Fiona Bruce wasted a long time on the Corbyn question when the answer was obvious even if Starmer couldn’t answer it. Understanding politics from the inside means from the outside it can look duplicitous. Yet he couldn’t exactly answer: “A challenge to Corbyn in 2019 could have split the Labour Party and we wouldn’t have recovered to be in the position we’re in right now”. Yet it’s still odd that he’s not got a better answer given that so much of his sell is based on the pragmatics of politics. He condemned “sticking plaster politics”, presented himself as a “common sense politician”, and was good on balancing budgets and picking priorities.

The most impressive moment of the evening was when he navigated a very gnarly question on the gender wars. His answer was nuanced and retreated to a position where he defended people’s dignity. It will have resonated with many who simply hope for a return to decency in our politicians and a less divisive way of talking about difficult subjects.

Davey was most relaxed while Swinney escaped scrutiny – Jenny Hjul

With the contest all but over, last night was about the suspension of disbelief, and the questions – would Ed Davey ditch his policies for a coalition deal? – were often hypothetical. The Lib Dem leader could afford to laugh at that and he certainly appeared the most relaxed, even when taken to task over tuition fees (his party’s big sell-out under Nick Clegg), his performance as Post Office minister, and his “wish list” manifesto.  But if Wednesday’s Savanta poll proves accurate, this is the man who is within a few seats of being leader of the opposition so he might want to take himself a little more seriously.

SNP leader John Swinney, on course to lose most of his party’s seats, had to defend 17 years of Nationalist failings, after just six weeks as First Minister. An impossible task so instead he turned back the clock to the 2021 Scottish election which had given separatists a majority and, he insisted, a mandate for independence (a word he mentioned only ten times in half an hour).

Despite a sprinkling of Scots in the crowd, Swinney escaped scrutiny (especially when he lamented the “polarisation” of the political debate!), and won over a few new fans for refighting Brexit.

Sir Keir Starmer, taking his argument to the people literally, though Fiona Bruce had ordered him to stay put, was earnest, engaged, emboldened. But he was evasive over repeated probing about his previous support for Jeremy Corbyn. And he still has not got over his woman problem. Despite help this week from Tony Blair on the gender issue, it’s all too “toxic” for the future PM. He just wants dignity and respect for everyone – unless, presumably, they are called Rosie Duffield.

Rishi Sunak was more to be pitied for the predicament he finds himself in, which could include losing his seat along with those of about three-quarters of his cabinet. 

“Are you glad you called the election? How do you think it’s going?” asked Bruce to audience jeers.

This was the low point because, for an honest man, having to fend off questions about chancers in the Tories’ escalating gambling scandal, he looked genuinely pained. How much does he deserve the opprobrium heaped on his party, last night and on 4 July?

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