Desperate v. Stolid

James Butler

If last night’s ITV debate between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer was exceptional, it was only for its inanity. Two men, neither of them with much stage presence or prone to thinking on their feet, traded prepared barbs and crowbarred in their key messages. Each made sure to name audience members, Janet – or was it Paula? – as an empathetic consolation prize for dodging their actual questions. Be honest about when – or if, or how – we’ll fix the NHS? Not on your life.

All modern politics is stage management. But the debate’s structure and leaders’ charmlessness made this an exceptionally airless event. Sunak seemed desperate, Starmer stolid. The format is designed for people who aren’t interested in politics and don’t know anything about the candidates: the host presses for one-word answers and 45-second responses; the candidates cram in their various totems (toolmaker Dad, NHS, fourteen years of failure v. NHS parents, tax, tax again, trust my plan, it’s really good). This might have been plausible in the era of linear TV, but the truth is that nobody except political obsessives and the professionally obliged watch the debates, which accounts for their aura of futility. Solid performances make little difference: only disasters count. The snap verdicts called it a dead heat, though it felt closer to the heat death of the universe.

There were a few ominous gleanings for the attentive viewer. Starmer’s first real jab was to wonder why Sunak had called an election now. His implication was that it was desperate and self-serving, targeted at the short window before the Rwanda scheme collapses in ignominy and both energy costs and inflation rise again. But this ought to worry Starmer, too: the cost of energy, and associated inflationary pressure, is a structural feature rather than a consequence of mere Tory mismanagement. It will bear down on a government of any political hue.

This is a minor instance of a key political problem for the 21st century: ecological crises present themselves as exogenous financial shocks, where the cheap bases of prosperity – food supply and energy above all – are increasingly unreliable and interrupted. Political instability and conflict ensue. Solving this problem will take staggering focus and ambition: even the first steps (in the UK) would require reform of the cartel pricing system in energy, massive investment in domestic non-fossil power, and getting serious on retrofitting and waste. Ambition was not in abundant supply last night.

Perhaps it is unfair to expect ambition from such a trivial and frustrating affair. But the format is so trivial it becomes mendacious. We are assured that both parties will have a full plan for social care, as if it were an easy matter that previous administrations simply had failed to get round to. Instead of having strikes, we would not have strikes. Instead of things that don’t work, we should have things that do work instead. Instead of the economy doing badly, it should do well. I can’t have been the only person providing an increasingly hysterical chorus of ‘yes, but how?’ in their living room.

Both leaders avoid the ‘how’ because the only real answer is by spending more money. Nobody really believes that the next government will be able to avoid it. There is no magic reform that will deliver more teachers to schools, more doctors to hospitals, or indeed schools and hospitals which are not at risk of falling down. In the last general election, in the guise of ‘levelling-up’, at least the issue was recognised – though the victor had little real plan to do anything about it. (Has anybody seen those forty hospitals?) Since then, the British media seem to have decided that honesty about this problem amounts to political suicide, and so we are left with politicians sedulously ignoring the chasm in our foundations and tap-dancing over the abyss instead.

Government will be difficult. Starmer will inherit a broken state, a shattered economy, a despairing populace and an unstable world. He will long for the kind of boom that cushioned Blair’s arrival. Reality was asserted, perversely, only through Sunak’s smear that Labour would cost each household an extra £2000 – headline material for the right-wing press this morning. The figures are dodgy, and it’s also an oblique acknowledgment that the government has so wrecked the state that doing anything to fix it will cost money that’s been siphoned off to their cronies in little bouts of corruption or tax breaks. Starmer let Sunak repeat the smear over and over, and his rebuttal was bloodless and technical. Sunak’s aggression – typical of his debating manner – may have masked quite how evasive Starmer was on the numbers. As perhaps the only remaining Tory lifeline, it is an argument bound to recur.

Other miserable moments followed: an Atlanticist fug descended in eulogies for the special relationship. Both men nearly broke out in a military tattoo. The debate on migration and small boats was especially noxious, with Starmer repeating his line that Sunak is the ‘most liberal’ prime minister on immigration and asserting his openness to third-country processing. He rounded it off with a bid to be considered the true heir of Churchill. What would the debate have looked like to someone with no knowledge of the political history and affiliations of the people in front of them? There were differences: one man likes to talk about ‘the workforce’ more, the other ‘freedom’, which mostly seems to be a euphemism for not paying taxes. Yet a Martian viewer might have been more struck by how often their answers converged, and the strangeness of a political system that produces such similarity between putative adversaries.

Martian analysis isn’t everything. It can capture the surface-level exhaustion of politics while missing the gap between rhetoric and reality, or the interests to whom each politician or party owes their allegiance, or simply the evidence of history. It can’t take into account what’s happening off-camera – whether Labour’s internal purges or Sunak’s cratering poll numbers. The biggest political news stayed mostly off-stage: the late return of Nigel Farage to the leadership of Reform, the announcement of his candidacy in Clacton, and the tiresome media orgy that follows. In the land of the bloodless technocrat, the pub bore is king.

There is much that is still unpredictable about Farage’s candidacy. The new statistical methods behind MRP polling models don’t handle such anomalies as famous independents very well (true in the cases of Galloway and Corbyn, too); constituency polls will doubtless arrive soon. Liberal commentators bring up Farage’s serial failure to win a seat. But his successes have never relied on electoral victory so much as the effects he has on the entire political field, and the issues – nationalism, migration, general chauvinism – and resentments he forces into national salience. He ratchets everything to the right. The animating neuroses of the Conservative Party, the lines along which it will fracture in defeat, are largely of his making.

A Farage-dominated campaign could easily turn a Tory rout into an apocalypse. Analysts reaching for comparisons turn to the Conservative annhilation in Canada in 1993. That is why Sunak’s final speech explicitly implored his voters not to be tempted away: a vote for any other party, he argues, is really a vote for Labour. He is right about the perverse consequences of a first-past-the-post electoral system. CCHQ must be wondering if Farage can be bribed, seduced or forced into a pact. It doesn’t seem likely.

The lingering impression of last night is how mercilessly volatile politics can be. Sunak was chancellor in a government with a powerful majority, dolled up as a superhero by BBC news. Five years later, at its head, he has seen all that vanish like fairy gold, all the political capital squandered, without any major achievements save for a few squalid advances in authoritarianism. He has only smears left. Starmer, in the ascendant, seems brittle. Perhaps he knows the magnitude of the problems he’s leaving off-stage. And perhaps he fears that five years from now, he could all too easily be in Sunak’s place.


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  • 5 June 2024 at 5:16pm
    staberinde says:
    The format was awful, and indicative of our shallow political discourse. 45-second answers and constant interruptions? We've gone full Chris Morris "Brass Eye."

    "How would you fix the NHS?"


    "In a word?"


    "Thank you."

  • 5 June 2024 at 5:27pm
    CarpeDiem says:
    I did not watch the debate. Did not want to, and mercifully, did not have to. The Starmer vs Sunak choice seems as palatable as choosing between getting defenestrated or being guillotined.

    • 5 June 2024 at 9:26pm
      jamesmann says: @ CarpeDiem
      And yet life is full of such choices. I think I would rather be defenestrated.

    • 6 June 2024 at 6:27pm
      steve kay says: @ jamesmann
      An opera anorak might comment that the guillotine offers drama from Andrea Chenier or the Dialogue of the Carmelites. On the other hand, anyone watching the streamed Gotterdammerung from Zurich will have seen Hagen defenestrated by the Rhine Maidens in the closing moments. No laundry baskets were involved, so no Verdi quote.

  • 6 June 2024 at 9:37am
    David Martin says:
    "In the land of the bloodless technocrat, the pub bore is king." - a brilliant line which I fear I will copy.

  • 6 June 2024 at 12:34pm
    TMNW8 says:
    I'm no friend of Starmer but I noted a difference between him and Sunak. Sunak's approach was "I me me mine" "me and my money" whereas Starmer was more "collectivist"; more focused on society in general and how everybody is doing. But the mainstream media (yes, I know, I know) immediately latched on to Sunak's approach and the Tory obsession with tax cuts as the solution to everything. None of the other issues discussed were ever followed up on the TV or the radio.

  • 6 June 2024 at 2:26pm
    Howard Medwell says:
    Back in the 1840's, the Chartists and other campaigners for what we would now call democracy wanted regular parliamentary elections and universal (albeit male) suffrage, along with other closely related reforms because they saw them as the way in which the mass of the population might gain power over the political class. However, our parliamentary system has now become a way in which the political class can assert and maintain its power over the mass of the population. Historians may tell us when this process started; my guess would be about the time we got real universal (male and female) suffrage, between the two World Wars. One important aspect of the way in which we are disempowered is the boringness of politics, eloquently illustrated by the turgid spectacle reported by James Butler. The political class don't want us to get too interested - remember how Lord Mandelson celebrated the 59% turnout in 2001 as the sign of a healthy democracy. We have all, like Brenda of Bristol in 2017, long since come to see General Elections as an unwelcome interruption of our personal lives; we want the professional political class to hurry up and get on with its job, and leave us in peace. If we are fed up with the present lot, well, let's have the other lot in, and let them have a go. This is the way it's been for most of my own 70-odd years, and for at least 60 of those years, it was good enough, because most - not all - of us got decent housing, decent jobs and latterly decent pensions.

  • 6 June 2024 at 4:27pm
    Lancastrian says:
    An excellent article both in content and expression - the pub bore line sums up the problem admirably. Unfortunately, pub bores can impress others with their facile ideas and prove dangerous.
    No mention of the increasingly worrying nature of affairs abroad generally and in Europe particularly, nor of the frightening nature of violence and widespread decline of civility and responsibility on the domestic front in the face of a self-regarding cultural norm. The latter would involve saying things that might upset people and the nature of the game is to avoid being rigorous with concerns about reality or truth-telling and hope that sufficient numbers are oblivious to the wool being pulled over their eyes.
    These emperors need some clothing - well, Starmer at least; Sunak's status is more akin to the elective monarchy in eighteenth century Poland.

  • 9 June 2024 at 9:22pm
    Dr Dean says:
    Starmer the socialist - don’t laugh, well not too hard, although it is hilarious - lied to become leader of the PLP and has been continuing that theme, not least on his already very modest policy agenda since. I suspect that inertia and excuses will form the pattern of a Starmer lead Government until, three or four years later, the largely masochistic electorate and FPTP deliver another Tory Government, lead perhaps by one of Blair’s progeny.

  • 11 June 2024 at 11:03am
    Camus says:
    The sheer banality of the event has long been overtaken by the series of errors that Sunak has produced and he is probably in retrospect asking himself how he can get back on track, as he crushed Starmer with that barrage of non -questions .

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