Like most internet-addled twentysomethings, I’m not all that picky when it comes to an evening’s entertainment. Plant me in front of the TV, and I’m primed for anything. Arthouse dramas. Netflix slop. Early Simpsons episodes. Highlight videos from decade-old Champions League matches. GoPro footage of road rage altercations. Sometimes all of the above in a single night. TV viewing has congealed into one great greasy slab of content: all I have to do is lean back and consume. But the line has to be drawn somewhere. Every so often, I encounter a piece of TV so mind-numbingly dire even I can’t stomach it. I’m speaking, of course, about the nation’s hottest new political drama, otherwise known as the Conservative leadership debates.
As we know, Boris Johnson’s ignominious tenure as prime minister finally imploded last month; within 24 hours, no fewer than 11 Tory hopefuls were vying to replace him. After some jostling, this number was soon culled to just two: Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss – a truly tantalising choice of rock and hard place. The new Tory leader, and therefore next PM, is voted in by the party’s membership. To help inform the tiny cadre of members who are deciding this country’s fate, the Conservatives have staged a series of leadership debates throughout the contest. Five, to be exact (not counting the 19 July Sky debate that was cancelled after Sunak and Truss fleetingly decided they were done with the whole mud-slinging rigmarole). But what exactly has been gleaned from these podium battles? A whole lot of nothing. We learned that Sunak has a penchant for interrupting his opposite numbers. We learned that Tom Tugendhat really, really wants you to know he was in the territorial army. The most noteworthy moment in this week’s debate on Talk TV happened off-screen, when presenter Kate McCann fainted partway through. It was an act of involuntary mercy from McCann, sparing viewers another half-hour of empty rhetoric, petty bickering and frankly embarrassing platitudes when the debate was called off.
The problem extends far beyond the clammy right-wing sock puppets competing for this particular throne. My issue isn’t just with the 2022 Tory leadership contest, but with the whole practice of TV debates. Received wisdom posits debates as a democratic necessity: on paper, they’re about holding prospective leaders to account, scrutinising their policies, their temperaments. These are worthy ideas – “accountability” is pretty much a foreign word to this government by now – but the theory never matches the reality. Candidates for whatever office are seldom placed under any real methodical scrutiny during debates. The whole thing devolves into a mindless regurgitation of pre-arranged talking points and manifesto pledges. It’s not about scrutiny, but cynical image management.
Even more so than the rest of the global political circus, TV debates live on the uneasy faultline between news and entertainment. Just look at recent presidential debates in the US. The Trump-Clinton debates of 2016 (and, to a lesser extent, the Trump-Biden ones four years later) were met with a whole lot of performative pearl clutching at the time. In one night alone, he called Clinton the “devil,” promised to jail her if he became president, and leveraged her husband’s sex scandal against her. The outrage was swift and inevitable: Trump had defiled the very sanctity of political discourse! He had been boorish, sexist, deceitful and incorrigible! Well – as Americans might say – no duh. Trump may not have understood politics, but he is a man who intimately understands television. For better or worse – and it was pretty axiomatically worse – Trump turned one of the stuffiest fixtures of the TV calendar into record-breaking box office entertainment. Polls suggested Clinton had comprehensively “won” each debate against Trump. We all saw how much good that did her.
There are countless other examples of the sheer ineffectualness of “debate performance”. Think back to the 2010 prime ministerial debate, which teased the possibility of a Lib Dem upset when Nick Clegg went blow-for-blow with the gammon dynamo himself, David Cameron. The Lib Dems ultimately ended up five MPs poorer as the “yellow wave” failed to crest; one misjudged coalition later, and Clegg’s career was up in flames.
Naturally, televised debates aren’t completely without usefulness. They’re helpful in divining how eloquent a candidate is, how intelligent, how adept at improvisation. All qualities that are useful in a politician, but far more important in, say, a stand-up comedian or hotel concierge. As for the qualities that truly matter in politics – dedication, compassion, pragmatism, honesty – we are simply supposed to take them at their word. In an ideal world, a politician’s charisma levels should be, frankly, a moot point. At its core – and I’m wary of sounding like a wet-eared naïf here – politics should be not about personality, but about ideas. Too often, telegenic slickness is used as a substitute for meaningful political ideology.
But with all that said and done, there is something particularly egregious about the Sunak-Truss debates. They are, after all, petitioning to win the favour of a group of party members that comprises less than 0.5 per cent of the country – a group that is 97 per cent white, and 44 per cent over the age of 65. It’s almost perversely niche content, dangled brazenly in the faces of the rest of the public. It’s like being copied into an email chain discussing a job application you’ve already been rejected for. All we can do is watch and take in the spectacle. But what a crummy spectacle it is.