Although he remains television’s premier political inquisitor, Andrew Neil – the one-time heir to Day and Paxman – has seen his stock fall somewhat in the last couple of years. He quit the BBC in a flurry of publicity in order to be the frontman for GB News when it was launched as the ‘anti-Woke’ current affairs channel, yet backstage clashes saw him vanish from the station in a matter of weeks as GB News experienced its own off-screen, TV-am-style melodrama. After a period of silence, Neil re-emerged to tell his side of the story in the press and seemed to be begging for forgiveness from the MSM; slipping seamlessly into reverse gear, he resurfaced in the very newsroom GB News was supposed to be the antidote to, that of Channel 4. Perhaps it says a great deal about the quality of younger news presenters and interviewers that even after his recent about-turn and inconsistent opinions, Neil is still ‘The Man’, and nobody has impressed as the inheritor of the mantle he’s worn for over a decade. He’s fortunate this is the case, but he didn’t take as much time out as Jeremy Paxman had when he briefly returned to the fray for one last time during the 2017 General Election; alas, an extended holiday hosting ‘University Challenge’ and leisurely Sunday evening docs had utterly blunted his precision and Paxo came across as a parody of his old self. Andrew Neil, it seems, has still got what it takes.
On Monday it was announced Neil would be presenting an exclusive one-on-one interview with Prime Ministerial hopeful Rishi Sunak on C4 this Friday; and it looks as though the ex-Chancellor will be facing a grilling from Brillo alone. Sunak tweeted the announcement with a knowing ‘Just me then?’ comment, as Liz Truss appears to have turned down the offer. Mind you, if she’s seen as the continuity candidate, she’s sticking to the same script Boris penned during the last General Election, when he repeatedly refused to be drawn into an interrogation by Neil. Whilst supporters of the PM continue to wind-up the Boris-haters with talk of 10,000 members signing a petition for him to remain in the job or at least be considered a candidate in the leadership contest, the actual battle to seize the tenancy of No.10 is between his former Chancellor and his incumbent Foreign Secretary, whether or not the latter can’t handle Andrew Neil. Mind you, Liz Truss must imagine she doesn’t need to put herself in such a vulnerable position.
With the loss of two contenders who might have made a difference – Kemi Badenoch and Penny Mordaunt – the beneficiary of the whittling down has been Truss, whose lead over Rishi Sunak at the moment leaves the one-time golden boy with a lot of work to do, maybe explaining why he agreed to be grilled by Andrew Neil; Liz Truss’s abysmal showing on the first two TV debates perhaps points to another reason why she’s chickened out. She couldn’t really bottle it when it came to the BBC debate between just her and her rival, but I suspect confronted by Neil at his best (which one hopes we get), Truss’s evident limitations would be exposed even further. Having said that, her dullness and Rishi’s blandness are such a striking contrast with the sub-Berlusconi persona of Boris that neither could illuminate the small screen nor convince anyone outside of the tiny percentage of the electorate with a vote that either was worth investing in. Indeed, watching this spectacle as it unfolds almost makes me feel like a peasant witnessing the hustings at an 18th century Rotten Borough, with the two nominees in the pocket of the local landowner making their pitches to the gentry.
A candidate who fell at an earlier hurdle – Tom ‘I used to be in the Army, you know’ Tugendhat – has pledged he will gladly work in the Cabinet of either Sunak or Truss, exhuming the ‘serving the nation’ spiel he utilised during the first TV debate. ‘I would serve any Conservative leader who asked me to,’ he said on ‘The World at One’, ‘because it’s about serving the country and serving the British people. It would be a privilege to do so.’ Having recently re-watched the ‘Yes Minister’ episode in which Jim Hacker is promoted to PM at the end, I can’t help but imagine the furtive promises of posts which must have been whispered in corridors or made in dimly-lit rooms by both remaining candidates once everyone else had been eliminated. The booby prize back then – at least according to ‘Yes Minister’ – was the Northern Ireland job, though I guess some other Ministry is probably used as a similar threat today should a member of the Cabinet not vote a particular way. I suppose Scotland would be a pretty thankless task for a Tory Minister in 2022, though Ulster is still a far-from dream posting, if for different reasons now. However, the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the Treasury remain the biggest bargaining chips available to Sunak and Truss as they seek to court the favour of colleagues.
As was shrewdly pointed out on this very blog by a certain Mr Mudplugger at the time, the unexpected second placing of the UK at this year’s Eurovision now appears to have been a premeditated effort by European nations to ensure the Contest would be hosted once again by the Brits when the foregone conclusion of a Ukraine win would preclude that troubled nation as a venue next year. It’s coming home; it’s coming home etc. Anyway, the BBC’s choice of Stoke-on-Trent to be the location for the third TV debate on Monday was motivated by similarly canny planning. Of the city’s three Parliamentary Constituencies, two – North and Central – were Red Wall seats that fell to the Tories in 2019 after almost 70 years in Labour hands, whereas the other – Stoke-on-Trent South – has been blue since 2017. So, a Conservative city that has spent the majority of its life as a Labour one – where better to host the first head-to-head between the last two contenders standing?
And those two contenders looked like their future representations at Madame Tussaud’s in the bizarre intro to the BBC debate, staring into the camera side-by-side as Sophie Raworth introduced them; in fact, I had to make sure they were indeed the real thing and not waxworks by checking their blinking – not that it’s easy to tell, to be honest. Anyway, Sunak responded to the first question from an audience member – all Tory voters last time round, apparently – by paying tribute to the former Northern Ireland First Minister and Good Friday Agreement player David Trimble, whose death had just been announced; he then launched into a defence of his economic policies as well as a simultaneous assault on his opponent’s plans for the economy. Rishi reckons his record as Chancellor gives him a grounding in economics that Truss lacks and one that will provide him with an advantage as PM; he also constantly played the pandemic card whenever his record came into question, as though that freak event was to blame for any shortcomings in the office. He played the Brexit card too, eliciting applause from a studio audience in a city that voted overwhelmingly Leave. Smart move.
China came up as an issue, with both contenders accusing the other of sucking up to the Chinese; but this was a pattern throughout the debate, each hurling allegations between their respective lecterns based on quotes they’d made in the past. The descent down to playground level has been exacerbated by tit-for-tat comments emanating from supporters of both camps on the subject of suits, shoes and earrings; Truss dismissed such trivialities by harping on about the locality in which the debate was staged as well as her upbringing on the middle-class mean streets of Roundhay in Leeds, whilst Sunak counteracted accusations of his expensive fashion tastes by constantly referring to his immigrant parents and how hard they worked to provide for him. Sunak’s near-catchphrase ‘You know what?’ had a small handful of outings again, whilst Truss’s right arm was as active as before; but the fact that Sunak felt the need to distance himself from Boris whenever the PM was mentioned seemed to suggest he was reaching out beyond the Tory faithful that Truss appears content to solely appeal to. Maybe Andrew Neil will hone in on that come Friday. We shall see.
© The Editor