UK’s Tory hopefuls square up for primetime TV clash

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LONDON — The gloves are off in the fight to replace Boris Johnson as British prime minister — and the two contenders are heading for a primetime showdown.

In the blue corner is Rishi Sunak — the former top finance minister who became a household name during the COVID-19 fight and who is trailing his rival in crucial polling of Conservative Party members.

In the other blue corner? Frontrunner Liz Truss, the foreign secretary who has promised crowd-pleasing tax cuts and is openly trash-talking Sunak’s economic record.

On Monday night, the pair go head-to-head on major TV channel BBC One for a live debate.

And the 9 p.m. clash either offers Sunak a real chance to turn the contest on its head — or gives Westminster’s media a fresh opportunity for navel-gazing, depending on which camp is doing the spinning.

Sunak’s supporters are unsurprisingly talking up their man’s prospects heading into the bout, and believe the underdog has what it takes to upset the contest.

“I think he’s always done well in debates, and they actually have been quite powerful,” a Tory MP backing Sunak said.

They argued that the former chancellor had been “head and shoulders above everyone” in the earlier round of TV debates that pitted Sunak and Truss against a much more crowded field of Tory hopefuls. They saw his performances as a “real shifting moment” in getting the crucial support from MPs needed to progress to round two.

Now the pair of hopefuls are pitching not to fellow MPs but to the much wider pool of Conservative members, who will get to pick between either Truss or Sunak by September while the rest of the country settles for a ringside seat.

Sunak’s supporters hope that audience will be paying close attention.

“Lots of people in my association are saying they want to go to hustings, they want to listen to the debates,” said the MP backing Sunak. “They are quite a switched-on electorate.”

Richard Holden, a Tory MP also backing Sunak, said Sunday that while some Tory minds had been made up, “a lot of people are still in the balance,” telling GB News “these TV debates over the next few days are going to be really crucial.”

Rishi Sunak campaigns in Grantham, England on July 23, 2022 | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Being the challenger already gives Sunak an advantage, one former political adviser involved in previous TV debates said, as they pointed to a fresh-faced David Cameron’s 2010 clashes with then soon-to-be-ex Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

“TV debates in particular are only good for insurgents,” the former adviser said. “They are never good for incumbents.”

Bubble story?

For their part, Team Truss is already trying to play down the significance of Monday night’s clash, which will be followed by a Talk TV debate on Tuesday, and next week by a Sky News head-to-head.

One Truss aide dismissed the debates as “quite possibly the biggest Lobby bubble obsession I have ever come across,” referring to the collective term for Westminster’s political journalists.

“More than anything, they are just a chance for enormous media organizations to sit around and talk about themselves,” they added. “No one normal will watch these things and those who do will be bored pretty quickly.”

Even so, the team has been studiously preparing over the weekend, with an adviser playing the part of Sunak in a mock debate Sunday, before the real thing kicks off in front of the studio audience in Stoke-on-Trent.

The main challenge for Truss is to avoid knocking herself out.

Sunak polled ahead of the foreign secretary in a previous TV clash, and this weekend she acknowledged that she might have shortcomings on the communication front. “I’m not the slickest presenter. I completely admit that,” she told the Daily Telegraph, while insisting she has a “what you see is what you get” appeal.

Her rival is already being advised to go big or go home, too. “Sunak needs a big game-changing moment,” said Giles Kenningham, a former aide to Cameron who has been involved in previous political debates, and now runs consultancy Trafalgar Strategy. “He has got to go for broke, especially because the window within which he’s got to change this electorate’s mind is pretty short.”

Christina Robinson, who helped Jeremy Hunt prepare for similar high-profile debates in the 2019 battle with Johnson for the Tory leadership, believes that at least some of the people who matter in this election are likely to be glued to their sets on Monday night.

Some 4.5 million people tuned in to the ITV leadership clash between Johnson and Hunt last time around, she pointed out, adding: “You’ve got to presume that most of the membership will be watching when the audience is that high, particularly with the number of undecideds this time.”

Snappy socials

Yet Truss’ supporters aren’t the only ones in Westminster skeptical about the value of set-piece TV debates. The former political aide quoted above warned that the televised clashes could easily suck the life out of both campaigns. “I’ve never met anybody who’s participated in TV debates or viewed a TV debate that feels like they got their message across any better, or that they were more informed at the end of it,” they said.

Liz Truss campaigns in Marden, England on July 23, 2022 | Hollie Adams/Getty Images

Kenningham too accepts there hasn’t been a huge moment in Westminster’s TV debates for a long time. Even a 2010 surge for relatively-unknown Nick Clegg, a third-party candidate who went on to become deputy prime minister, was “less about a moment and more about a feeling,” he said.

This time, though, it’s not just the performance on the night to watch out for.

Campaign teams will be aiming for snappy social media clips likely to be shared in the WhatsApp and Facebook groups of party members as they make their pick — meaning any stumbles or knockout blows could have a much longer life.

“It is going to be one of the most pressurized moments of their career, especially at this stage in the contest when everyone knows these are the two weeks when people make up their mind,” said Robinson, the former aide to Hunt.

“Really the stakes couldn’t be higher for either side. It could deliver a game-changing moment in the debate. It could very easily shift those YouGov member polls.”