LONDON — Was this the night Liz Truss sealed the deal?
Monday night’s crucial head-to-head television showdown between Truss and Rishi Sunak, the last two contenders in the race to replace Boris Johnson, ended in an effective draw, leaving Truss in pole position to become Tory leader and UK Prime Minister.
The debate was the first in a series to be shown on television screens in the days and weeks to come, but was widely seen as the biggest as it was screened in prime time on Britain’s most-watched free channel. , BBC1. .
And it means that with six weeks to go before the new prime minister is installed at 10 Downing Street, Truss, the UK foreign secretary, remains in charge.
Here’s how Monday night’s big debate between the two finalists unfolded.
The favorite delivers… more or less
Entering the debate as the clear favorite to be Britain’s next prime minister, albeit with lingering doubts about her ability to perform under pressure, Truss had the most to lose as she prepared to take on Sunak in a BBC studio in Stoke-on-Trent.
In the event, the chancellor did exactly what she had to do. She came across as calm and focused in the face of a louder, more aggressive performance from Sunak, and she managed to avoid any of the PR blunders she’s been known for during parts of her ministerial career.
This was by no means a foregone conclusion. Truss had finished last in the first five-part Tory leadership debate broadcast earlier this month, according to a snap poll by Opinium, and Sunak was seen as performing significantly better. But this time, the same pollster found that Truss and Sunak were almost neck and neck with voters across the UK.
And the Foreign Secretary will be delighted with the detail of the poll, which found that Conservatives voters specifically rated Truss’s performance better than Sunak’s, by 47 to 38 percent.
Critics who called the foreign secretary rigid and error-prone early in the race have been forced to swallow their words. It’s early days, but he seems headed for No. 10.
Tetchy Sunak fails to land a killing blow
After Truss in the Tory membership polls, Sunak failed to deliver the killing blow he sorely needed before voting begins next week, though it wasn’t for lack of trying from the start.
In a contentious first half of the debate, the former chancellor barely allowed Truss to speak as she harangued and harassed her about the details of her tax cut proposals.
On multiple occasions, the BBC’s Sophie Raworth, acting as referee, was forced to intervene and ask Sunak to allow Truss room to respond. On one occasion, Truss silently appealed to herself for the chance to respond, while Sunak continued to talk about her.
Perhaps acknowledging that the approach wasn’t working, Sunak became less loud and more considerate as the night wore on, eventually earning the first rounds of applause from the audience for his responses on Boris Johnson’s Brexit achievements and on the personal wealth of his own family.
However, without a game-changing moment coming up, it seemed unlikely that it would be enough to turn the tide of the race. Sunak is quickly running out of time to turn things around.
Still no love lost
If the opposition Labor Party enjoyed the first five-way debates enough to create a video of the candidates’ most brutal humiliations, it will have rejoiced again on Monday night when the gloves were off early on.
Personal attacks from both candidates were unrelenting during a lengthy opening segment on tax policy. Sunak repeatedly interrupted Truss to declare that his plans were “unresponsible,” “unmoral,” and a “short-term sugar rush.”
For his part, Truss compared Sunak to former Labor Prime Minister Gordon Brown, saying Sunak’s criticism of his tax proposals was reminiscent of the “Project Fear” campaign run by supporters of the Remain vote in the Brexit referendum.
Sunak was quick to point out that, unlike him, Truss was among the Conservatives who backed Remain in 2016, and played a key role in issuing warnings about the impact of Brexit.
Away from the debate stage in Stoke-on-Trent, the couple’s supporters were only helping to remind the public of the deep divisions within the Conservatives.
Multiple Truss supporters, including his closest cabinet colleague Thérèse Coffey, accused Sunak of “explaining” during the debate. A Truss campaign spokesman went even further, telling the Times newspaper that Sunak had “proved tonight that he is unfit for office.”
While that single line may have signaled the end of Sunak’s political career, it was notable that the Truss campaign did not repeat it after the event. And despite the ongoing bitter attacks behind the scenes, onstage Truss insisted that he would still offer Sunak a job in his government.
Hugging BoJo close
Prime Minister Johnson’s departure has overshadowed much of the leadership contest, amid extravagant reports suggesting that he may wish for a political comeback.
Significant time was spent Monday night on questions about Johnson, who nominated both candidates to two of the most important posts in his administration. The prime minister remains a popular figure among large elements of the conservative militancy.
Perhaps with that fact in mind, Sunak, whose resignation brought down the Johnson administration, praised his former boss, calling him “one of the most remarkable people I have ever met.” Asked to rate his leadership out of 10, the former chancellor gave Johnson a full 10 for getting Brexit done, comments that earned him his biggest round of applause of the night.
Truss, who has the backing of most of Johnson’s closest allies, played on his refusal to resign from his government, saying he did not believe “mistakes [Johnson] facts were enough for the Conservative Party to have rejected it.” However, he gave his position as prime minister a cool seven out of 10.
Spectators turning on their televisions at 9:00 p.m. on Monday They were received for a painfully long and deeply uncomfortable camera shot of what appeared to be cardboard cutouts of Sunak and Truss standing in front of the Stoke-on-Trent audience.
Except these cutouts might flicker; they weren’t actually made of cardboard; and they both looked as uncomfortable as the audience staring in disbelief at the BBC’s odd choice in the foreground.
The tone was set. In an hour of prime-time political television, candidates and presenters rarely touched on totemic issues like Britain’s NHS or rising crime. The studio audience barely got to see either of them. 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 candidates’ dress preferences, with Sunak being asked to defend his choice of smart suits and expensive shoes.
The awkward viewing was compounded by the scene of two of the station’s most senior journalists, Chris Mason and Faisal Islam, crowded in a small corner behind a small desk to ask his follow-up questions.
With at least two more prime-time TV debates, British politics show no signs of getting any less weird anytime soon.