It was about halfway through the Sun leaders’ debate on TalkTV. The topic had moved on to Ukraine and Liz Truss was saying Vladimir Putin wasn’t going to stop there. “He’s going to challenge the freedom and democracy …” Liz never got to finish the sentence.
First there was the faintest fizzing sound. A second or so later there was a much louder, prolonged crashing noise. Truss was visibly shocked. She glanced towards Rishi Sunak – just about the first time she had looked him in the eyes all evening – before making her way from behind her podium towards where the noise had come from.
At which point, the broadcast from the TV studio was cut to be replaced with an on-screen notice that the debate had been interrupted. That notice was left in place for more than 10 minutes before TalkTV started airing adverts for other shows. Probably not the right time for that and before long the interruption notice was back in place.
About 20 minutes after the broadcast had been cut short, the TalkRadio presenter Ian Collins came on air to tell us there had been a medical issue. But Sunak and Truss were apparently continuing taking questions from the Sun audience in the studio. Which just felt weird. Why would they be standing around chatting to members of the audience when there was an ongoing medical situation? Round about 7pm, TalkTV explained all. The presenter, Kate McCann, had fainted on air. She was now OK but had been advised not to continue the debate.
It was a disturbing end to what had been yet another surreal moment in the ongoing, unedifying psychodrama of the Tory leadership contest. After Monday night’s BBC debate – or rather couple’s therapy session that had gone badly wrong – in which Radon Liz and Rish! had all but descended into outright abuse of one another, both leadership contenders had clearly been advised to rein things in a bit.
For Sunak this meant less mansplaining and allowing Truss to finish the odd sentence. For Truss it meant trying to give the impression that being in the same room as Rish! didn’t make her skin crawl. Both were attempting the impossible. To look and act natural.
Even so, there was still the feeling of the morning after the night before. What had been seen could not be unseen. What had been done could not be undone. So what we got was two people on their best behaviour. Going through the same charade as before but trying to be grown up. The practised, plastic smiles of politicians who pretend to get on.
The debate began with McCann asking the Sun editor, Victoria Newton, what she thought her readers would want to know. “Cost of living, Brexit and immigration,” she replied. McCann then invited Liz and Rish! to make their opening offers to Sun readers. “Cost of living, Brexit and immigration,” they both replied metronomically. They may be stupid, but they aren’t that stupid. They know how to give a standard stock answer.
Truss was then asked if there was anything she wanted to say to Rish!. She hummed and ahhed. As it happens, there wasn’t really anything. She had already long since said everything she wanted to in previous debates. Two debates in two days was borderline pointless. It wasn’t going to change the dial on anything. The same questions would come up again in one form or another and both leadership contenders would trot out their standard boilerplate answers. When even Radon Liz is alert enough to have an existential crisis, you know things must be terrible. All Rish! wanted to say to Truss was: “Happy birthday.” Because he’s Mr Nice Guy deep down. All heart.
The first question from the audience was on the NHS. Both Rish! and Liz kissed the badge and said they were going to make it better. They didn’t know how but that was beside the point. Sunak said it was his mission because he hadn’t had two mogadon to rub together as a child, Truss merely said she’d used the NHS once a few years ago and it had been OK. Sun reader John, a cancer patient, didn’t seem particularly reassured to hear that it would be good if cancers could be diagnosed earlier. Hardly surprising.
We then moved on to the cost of living. More specifically, the price of meat. Should we go vegetarian? Truss said meat would get cheaper because Brexit would reduce red tape on farmers. It’s literally increasing red tape. Rish! said his Brexit would be better because he had always been a Brexiteer. At which point the veneer of good manners between the two dissolved and they got into a reheated argument over his tax rises and her tax cuts. Both accused the other of being morally irresponsible.
McCann tried to keep the peace but it was a very fragile peace. Who knows where we would have ended if the debate had run its course. But then the unfortunate McCann fainted and the hostilities ended. It had been an inconclusive affair. One in which only McCann had shone in the way she had handled both contenders. Though that probably suited Radon Liz: she’s well ahead in the polling of Tory members and that’s all that counts. And it wasn’t even that certain anyone but me had been watching. TalkTV’s 6pm slot frequently gets a zero audience rating. So – McCann apart – it might have been Much Ado About Nothing.