EXCEPT that the iconic shootout scene in Pale Rider or High Plains Drifter this definitely wasn’t. Billed as the first showdown between the five desperate gunslingers vying to be the new Sheriff of Toryville, the previous one having been run out of town on the rail, most of Friday night’s TV ‘debate’ felt more like a polite encounter using water-pistols.
That extended even to the audience. Instead of a classic Channel 4 phalanx of snarling attack-dogs baying for Tory blood, they seemed subdued, resigned even, despite reportedly having been warmed up to a suitable level of outrage before transmission by presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy, who subsequently attracted criticism for allegedly dominating the show. To be fair, such was the relative torpor of both candidates and audience, it would have been hard for him not to.
Guru-Murthy’s first question, ‘Why should the public trust any of you?’ saw Sunak and Truss not so much fall as dive into the trap of citing their experience and achievements in ministerial office – rather like accessories to a murder insisting their own hands were bloodless – but to hear Sunak talking about tackling ‘the challenges of inflation’, as the Chancellor who helped let it take off, felt a bit rich.
Tugendhat’s answer seemed over-rehearsed and too clever by half. Mordaunt, however, sought to designate herself the optimum repository of trust by saying, ‘I take it as a compliment that no one wants to stand against me’ – while standing alongside four other candidates doing exactly that – before lapsing into platitudes about her ‘new, modern agenda’ and ‘delivering’. Astutely, Badenoch trusted all her fellow candidates except Mordaunt. Smart lady, as we were shortly to see.
Because, in what felt even at the time like the significant moment of an otherwise fairly lacklustre 90 minutes, Badenoch directly challenged Mordaunt’s truthfulness on the latter’s insistence that she never supported gender self-ID. The documentation on this is unequivocal, as I explained at TCW only a few days ago. Badenoch is right and moreover she provoked Mordaunt into doubling down on her denial that’s already been proved false.
Asked about tax cuts at the expense of public services, Tugendhat avoided answering the question (not for the last time of the evening) by sidetracking into a paean of praise for the NHS. Truss appeared to favour borrowing to fund tax cuts, which is at least better than Sunak’s refusal to countenance them at all before inflation – the ample early warnings of which he ignored while his money-printing furlough paid people not to work – has been brought under control. However, neither of these aspiring Thatcherites mentioned emulating the lady herself in holding down public spending to achieve the same end, as Nile Gardiner pointed out in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph. Only Badenoch was honest enough to tell the audience that there are no easy solutions to this conundrum, only trade-offs, and certainly no magic money tree.
‘Low tax Conservative’ Mordaunt refused to contemplate jettisoning the upcoming (and manifesto-breaking) rise in National Insurance; and, in extolling her own proposed 50 per cent cut in VAT on road fuel, neglected to say that it wouldn’t be permanent, but in force only until April 2023, as she specified in her Daily Telegraph ‘manifesto‘ of July 11. She did manage to say it’s time to ‘make things happen’, and that we are in a ‘moment of unity’. No, me neither.
Badenoch again proved the least starry-eyed and most realistic on energy costs and Green-ery in general. Despite some good ideas on diversifying energy supply sources by exploiting our natural gas resources and small modular nuclear reactors, Truss wanted them only as a better way of reaching Net Zero, so clearly remains attached to this disastrous chimera.
Mordaunt, as expected, waxed lyrical with WEF-speak about ‘low-cost energy from renewables’, which sadly endures as an oxymoron. Only Badenoch would say unequivocally that removing Green levies from our burgeoning energy bills is a far greater priority than ‘tackling climate change’, and that Sunak’s idea of giving people money merely fuels, as his furlough payments showed, the inflation he purports to tackle, so that cutting Green taxes is the better option.
On ‘How would you create a Green economy?’ though, disappointingly, none of the five dared to challenge the concept per se, Badenoch was also at least better than the rest in asserting that Zac Goldsmith’s doom-laden predictions of the apocalypse which awaits if we don’t are simply wrong, while Truss (oh, dear) clearly viewed any answer solely through the prism of reducing ‘carbon’ [sic] on the way to Net Zero.
Mordaunt, unsurprisingly, reiterated her total commitment to Net Zero, regurgitating her Daily Telegraph ‘manifesto’ claim of its yielding a cornucopia of so-called ‘Green’ jobs, although curiously now down from the ‘three million’ of only seven days ago to mere ‘thousands’. From Tugendhat we heard that the planet is global (who knew?) so we must not allow others to break the rules we set, since CO2 (a 0.04 per cent trace gas essential to all plant life on earth) is ‘poisoning the planet’. How we would enforce that on other nations was, oddly, left unsaid. Presumably, Generalissimo Tugendhat will lead the UK military invasion of China to stop them opening all those coal-fired power stations and building all those new airports. Though that may not necessarily endear him to Mandarin Mordaunt who, judging by her Gates-foreworded and Blair-revered tome on our New Model Society, appears to find Chinese-model authoritarianism quite congenial.
Quite obviously, the merest questioning of the Green Holy Grail of Net Zero, despite its astronomical cost in wealth and freedom for only marginal benefit decades in the future, is considered political suicide by all candidates except Badenoch, although even she could have gone further, given her earlier – and correct – labelling of it as ‘unilateral economic disarmament’.
On how to deal with the post-Covid NHS backlog, Sunak’s response – or answer-avoidance tactic if you prefer – was to lead his colleagues and the audience in the mandatory toe-curling round of applause for ‘Our Precious NHS’. Then, as if brimming with new-found religious fervour, Rishi vouchsafed to us that he ‘believes in the NHS’ – which, given that it obviously exists and has done for 75 years, was less than the earth-shattering, leadership election-changing statement he imagined.
Truss assured us that the NHS ‘has done a fantastic job’ during the pandemic, which raises the question of why there’s now such an egregious backlog. The bereaved relatives of otherwise healthy people shunted out of hospitals to acquire and succumb to Covid in care homes may also have a different view.
Mordaunt, reluctant to let a platitude go unsaid, declared the answer to be ‘innovation’ to ‘enable people to get more out of the system’. (Once again: no, me neither.) Tugendhat’s solution was, basically, ‘I’m a military planner, trust me’. Ground control to Major Tom, perhaps?
It was left to Badenoch to remind both candidates and audience that more public money is being poured into the NHS than ever before, and that only devising and implementing better ways of running it more efficiently provides a medium to long-term solution.
With the quality poorer even than I expected, the 90 minutes was actually quite depressing. Overall, Badenoch was the winner for me, but largely as a slightly-better-than-the-rest best of a worryingly mediocre bunch. Truss will have done herself no favours, and Tugendhat looks just a bit too impressed with himself. Sunak was unconvincing, Mordaunt even more so.
By the time this is published, the second TV ‘debate’, hosted by ITV News, will have been held, and we’ll be looking forward to the result of today’s round of voting reducing the field to four.