LONDON — Was this the night Liz Truss sealed the deal?
Monday evening’s crucial head-to-head TV clash between Truss and Rishi Sunak — the final two contenders in the race to replace Boris Johnson — ended in an effective score draw, leaving Truss in pole position to become Tory leader and U.K. prime minister.
The debate was the first in a series which will play out on TV screens over the coming days and weeks, but was widely seen as the most important as it screened in a primetime slot on Britain’s most-watched free-to-air channel, BBC1.
And it means that with six weeks to go until the new prime minister is installed in 10 Downing Street, Truss, the U.K. foreign secretary, remains in the driving seat.
Here’s how Monday night’s big debate played out between the final two.
The favorite delivers … sort of
Coming into the debate as the clear favorite to be Britain’s next prime minister, albeit with lingering questions about her ability to perform under pressure, Truss had the most to lose as she prepared to face Sunak in a BBC studio in Stoke-on-Trent.
In the event, the foreign secretary did exactly what she needed to do. She came across as calm and focused in the face of a shoutier and more aggressive performance from Sunak, and managed to avoid any of the PR gaffes for which she has been known through parts of her ministerial career.
This was in no way a foregone conclusion. Truss had finished bottom in the first, five-way Tory leadership debate broadcast earlier this month, according to an Opinium snap poll, with Sunak judged to have performed significantly better. But this time round the same pollster found Truss and Sunak were almost neck and neck among voters across the U.K.
And the foreign secretary will be delighted by the detail of the survey, which found that Conservative voters specifically rated Truss’ performance better than Sunak’s, by 47 to 38 percent.
Critics who wrote off the foreign secretary as wooden and error-prone early in the contest have been forced to eat their words. It’s early days, but she appears on course for No. 10.
Tetchy Sunak fails to land killer blow
Trailing Truss in polls of Tory members, Sunak failed to land the killer blow he urgently needed before voting starts next week — though it wasn’t for want of trying, early on.
In a combative first half of the debate, the former chancellor barely let Truss get a word in, as he harangued and harassed her on the detail of her tax-cutting proposals.
On multiple occasions the BBC’s Sophie Raworth, acting as referee, was forced to step in and request Sunak let Truss have space to answer. On one occasion, Truss quietly appealed herself for the opportunity to respond, as Sunak continued to talk over her.
Perhaps recognizing the approach wasn’t working, Sunak grew less shouty and more considered as the night went on, eventually garnering the first rounds of applause from the audience for his answers on Boris Johnson’s Brexit achievements and on his own family’s personal wealth.
With no game-changer moment forthcoming, however, it seemed unlikely to be enough to change the course of the race. Sunak is quickly running out of time to turn things around.
Still no love lost
If the opposition Labour Party enjoyed the early five-way debates enough to create a video of the candidates’ most brutal put downs, it will have been overjoyed again Monday night as the gloves came off right from the start.
The personal attacks from both candidates were relentless during a long initial segment on tax policy. Sunak repeatedly interrupted Truss to declare that her plans were “not responsible,” “not moral” and a “short-term sugar rush.”
For her part, Truss compared Sunak to the former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and said Sunak’s criticisms of her tax proposals were reminiscent of the “Project Fear” campaign run by those supporting a Remain vote in the Brexit referendum.
Sunak did not miss the chance to point out that unlike him, Truss was among the Conservatives who backed Remain in 2016 — and played a key role in issuing dire warnings about the impact of Brexit.
Away from the debating stage in Stoke-on-Trent, supporters of the pair were only helping to remind the public of the Conservatives’ deep divisions.
Multiple supporters of Truss — including her closest Cabinet colleague Thérèse Coffey — accused Sunak of “mansplaining” during the debate. One spokesperson for the Truss campaign went even further, telling the Times newspaper that Sunak had “tonight proven he is not fit for office.”
While that single line may have signaled the end of Sunak’s political career, it was notable that Truss’ campaign team would not repeat it after the event. And despite the bitter attacks ongoing behind the scenes, up on the stage Truss insisted she would still offer Sunak a position in her government.
Hugging BoJo close
Departing Prime Minister Johnson has overshadowed much of the leadership contest, amid outlandish reports suggesting he may fancy a political comeback.
Monday night saw significant time devoted to questions about Johnson, who appointed both candidates to two of the most senior roles in his government. The prime minister remains a popular figure with large elements of the Tory membership.
Perhaps mindful of that fact, Sunak — whose resignation brought down Johnson’s government — praised his former boss and said he was “one of the most remarkable people I’ve met.” Asked to rate his leadership out of 10, the former chancellor gave Johnson a full 10 for delivering Brexit — remarks that earned him his biggest round of applause of the night.
Truss, who boasts the backing of most of Johnson’s closest allies, played up her refusal to resign from his government, saying she didn’t believe that the “mistakes [Johnson] made were sufficient that the Conservative Party should have rejected him.” Nevertheless, she rated his prime ministership a cool seven out of 10.
Viewers turning on their television sets at 9 p.m. Monday were greeted by a painfully long, deeply uncomfortable camera shot of what appeared to be cardboard cut-outs of Sunak and Truss standing in front of the Stoke-on-Trent audience.
Except these cut-outs could blink; they weren’t actually made of cardboard; and they both looked just as uncomfortable as the audience watching the BBC’s bizarre choice of opening shot in disbelief.
The tone was set. In an hour of primetime political TV, the candidates and presenters rarely touched on totemic issues such as Britain’s National Health Service, or rising crime. The studio audience barely got a look in either. Questions about the role of Brexit in last week’s border crisis were reduced to a simplistic yes/no format.
But several long minutes were found to discuss the sartorial preferences of the candidates, with Sunak asked to defend his choice of sharp suits and expensive shoes.
The awkward viewing was compounded by the scene of two of the broadcaster’s most senior journalists, Chris Mason and Faisal Islam, crammed into a small corner behind a tiny desk to ask their follow-up questions.
With at least two more primetime TV debates to go, British politics shows no signs of getting any less weird anytime soon.