It was akin to a rock festival where the two top-of-the-bill bands pull out at the last minute and the unlucky punters who have spent a small fortune to see them are stuck with those lower down the bill who they thought would be worth enduring as long as the big acts followed them. ITV’s leaders’ debate last night, following on from the well-remembered television events of 2010 and 2015, had five politicians on the podium. Two of them – Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon – won’t be standing for election at Westminster, whereas of the other three, Paul Nuttall probably won’t be elected to Westminster, Caroline Lucas will just about scrape by again as the sole Parliamentary representative of her party, and Tim Farron will most likely make it along with perhaps half-a-dozen other Lib Dems.
Our big chicken PM wasn’t present, of course; the thought of her participating in any debate she can’t control with the martinet tendencies of an old-school auteur film director is unimaginable; she can clearly only cope with a choreographed audience of Tory activists if her electioneering so far is anything to go by, so her absence was no great surprise. Having her policies placed under a spotlight she herself isn’t operating is something she is worryingly averse to. Those policies being scrutinised by her political opponents before a nationwide audience might be tolerable on the BBC Parliament Channel, where few but the most devoted political anoraks will be watching; but being exposed on ITV with an audience of millions fresh from ‘Emmerdale’? No chance!
And what of Jezza? He refused to take part if Mrs May refused to take part. The ‘Presidential approach’ to this General Election, in which the Conservative and Labour leaders are sold as candidates going head-to-head regardless of the rest, obviously isn’t merely the responsibility of the media; Corbyn clearly views May as his sole opponent and will only take on her. If she’s not there, neither is he. Mind you, Jezza enjoys preaching to the converted as well. Which 68-year-old man would choose facing a difficult audience of floating voter don’t-knows that might not be convinced by his messianic charisma when he can be welcomed by screaming girls that make him feel like Harry Styles at staged events in Labour strongholds across the country?
So, with the absence of the two party leaders that everyone with an interest would like to see confront each other on this type of programme, ITV had to make do with Ringo, Ringo, Ringo, Ringo and Ringo. Paul Nuttall, the nominated punch-bag of the other participants, lacks the comic talents of his predecessor as UKIP leader; Nigel’s blustering presence helped liven up the equivalent debate during the last General Election, yet Nuttall is the Syd Little to Farage’s Eddie Large. The only humorous contribution he made was accidental – referring to Leanne Wood as ‘Natalie’ more than once, confusing the Plaid Cymru leader with the former coughing commander-in-chief of the Greens, Ms Bennett.
Caroline Lucas took a leaf out of the Ed Miliband book by constantly addressing the camera whenever answering an audience question. She also played to the gallery when an elderly audience member suffering from MS mentioned her working life in the NHS and Lucas began her response by paying tribute to somebody she’d never met before to the expected round of applause. Her opinions stuck to the tried and untested Green manifesto, something that must appeal to those groovy hipsters living in Brighton but doesn’t seem appealing to the electorate on a national level. She hit the mark when bringing up the topic of the Lib Dems’ role in the Coalition as Tim Farron was droning on about the NHS, though that was the only real point she scored.
Leanne Wood has now dispensed with the ‘beehive’ that gave her a distinctive appearance last time round, a seemingly trivial touch that nevertheless made a politician with such a small backyard stand out from her better-known national rivals; and as happened to Mari Wilson’s chart career when she too dropped the same haircut, Ms Wood’s change of image strangely seems to have rendered her less effective as a performer. Plaid Cymru in Wales lack the clout of their ideological allies the SNP in Scotland, and any arguments Wood put forward as policies to cover the entire country can barely be supported in her own neck of the woods. She did have the most amusing exchanges with Paul Nuttall, but she appeared to be present last night just to make up the numbers.
Nicola Sturgeon took advantage of Theresa May’s absence perhaps more than any other participant in the programme, shrewdly highlighting the PM’s manifesto threat to remove free school meals when the subject of education was raised. But limited by the fact she only really cares about what happens in Scotland at the expense of the rest of the UK, her experience as an orator on more major platforms than some of those she shared last night’s with couldn’t be utilised for that very reason. The dominance of the SNP north of the border may have given her the authoritative demeanour that comes with power, though even making the occasional valid point on the subject of inequality was essentially ineffective in this context if one lives south of Berwick.
Tim Farron did his best without the guiding hand of Captain Birdseye and must have been relieved nobody asked a question about gay sex. He made the most of being ‘A Northerner’ and working-class as well as the fact he represents a constituency way up in Westmorland, which isn’t exactly home to the most thriving economy in the country; he also tried to steal Caroline Lucas’ thunder by shoehorning climate change into the debate. But as a public speaker he doesn’t possess the slickness of his predecessor as Lib Dem leader, even if that slickness did backfire on Mr Clegg in the end. Farron’s real problem remains that everything with him seems to come back to Brexit.
The host Julie Etchingham’s hair was a little longer than last time round and, along with dropping her serious specs, it didn’t give her the same Anne Robinson aura; events unfortunately weren’t interrupted by a stage invader dropping his pants, unlike the Eurovision last Saturday; and whilst a refreshing change from the standard dumb-ass fare ITV routinely serves-up between 8.00 and 10.00 of an evening, the no-show by the Tories and Labour reduced the spectacle to a minor sideshow in this General Election campaign.
© The Editor