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Voices: There’s no doubt who lost the first Tory leadership debate – Boris Johnson must be fuming

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Well, no doubt who lost that one, is there? The Apprentice episode from hell couldn’t finish soon enough for her. Good team leader? Not poor old Liz Truss on Team Blue Horizon. Or Liz “trussed up and handed her sorry ass on a plate by Rishi Sunak”, as things turned out. So wooden she should have been sponsored by Cuprinol, the foreign secretary never actually evinced a groan from the audience (although they may well have been dying inside, the same as she was), but she certainly didn’t get them pumped up either.

An indifferent public speaker at the best of times, she’s sadly just as bad as she was when she did that YouTube favourite, the “disgraceful cheese” speech a few years back. Boris Johnson must be fuming. This is supposed to be his secret wonder weapon, his “Stop Sunak” candidate, and he chose badly, as so often. Truss is a politician so frightened by a camera and a live audience of actual floating voters that she can’t even get herself pumped up. Maybe she’s a great laugh in private over a few drinks, and compelling in cabinet committees, but she’s a dud on the telly.

As part of her perpetual makeover strategy, Truss has been photographed in some remarkable outfits in recent years: like a David Bowie tribute act from his Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) era; a peasant farmer in her orchard; and posing vice-regally in the splendour of the Foreign Office, antique globe placed as if in a portrait by Holbein.

Now, though, with her target audience of Tory boomers, Liz had herself made up so that she resembled an animatronic waxwork Margaret Thatcher. There was the same blonde bouffant, the same blouse with giant pussy cat bow, the same Tory blue outfit, the same icy stare, the same humourless, deliberate delivery – all she needed was the handbag and some pits to close down.

It didn’t work, at least with the floating voters, who found her crash tax-cutting plan as unconvincing as Sunak did – a “fairytale” to be brutally ridiculed.

Liz had herself made up so that she resembled an animatronic waxwork Thatcher (PA)
Liz had herself made up so that she resembled an animatronic waxwork Thatcher (PA)

Surprisingly, given the hammering he rightly received earlier this year about his family’s tax affairs – offshore trusts and non-dom status, and very nice too – the Channel 4 debate showed that the audience was indeed “ready for Rishi”. With the demeanour of a pushy fresher all too eager to show how smart he is, this recently ex-chancellor was the only one of the frumpy five who had the remotest grip on economics, and he wasn’t shy about rubbing it in.

You could almost feel his pain when Truss tried to extend the national debt like you might try to renegotiate an unaffordable mortgage. The despair on his face! It was like the dimmest kid in the class was trying to show off, and he just couldn’t bear to be standing so near to the pathetic display. But, for now, he just couldn’t just shut her up or sack her.

The zinger of the evening was delivered by the Tugster, Tom Tugendhat, a man who’s not been a household name in his own kitchen. When Krishnan Guru-Murthy asked each of the contestants on this caricature of Fifteen to One whether Boris Johnson was “honest”, four of them prevaricated to a greater or lesser extent, but the Tugster just shook his head in a more-in-sorrow-than-anger sort of way.

He had the great advantage of having run a select committee during the entirety of the Johnson administration and could speak out about things like the national insurance hike, and he made the most of it. He scored two rounds of spontaneous applause, which was two more than anyone else.

The March of Mordaunt and the Badenoch Bandwagon stalled, but they’re still on the road, while Truss veered off into the gutter. I’m not sure if we’ll ever know for sure who changed that clause in the gender recognition consultation document, and I’m not sure we will ever care that much, either. All we can be sure of is that one or more of Liz, Penny or Kemi wasn’t being as honest as they made out, and so they collectively corroborated the general impression that politicians tend to fib in their own interest. Which isn’t a shock.

It was the earnest Sunak who came across as the least bad, but the whole bunch proved that they couldn’t even manage to level themselves up (PA)
It was the earnest Sunak who came across as the least bad, but the whole bunch proved that they couldn’t even manage to level themselves up (PA)

Most political TV debates favour the insurgent – Nick “I agree with Nick” Clegg at the 2010 general election, a jacketless Rory Stewart in his 2019 Tory leadership run, even Nigel Farage’s calculated smear about migrants carrying HIV in 2015. The tired old faces usually sound and look knackered; the new kids on the block get a chance to shine, and often it’s the first time the public have clapped eyes on them.

This time round, that was only really true of Tugendhat; although, just as he’d admitted earlier in the day, he doesn’t half go on about when he was in the (Territorial) army. It was the earnest Sunak who came across as the least bad, but the whole bunch proved that they couldn’t even manage to level themselves up. If, as they claimed, this was “the best the Conservatives have to offer”, then it’s probably now safe for Labour to bring back Jeremy Corbyn, and for Jo Swinson to start fronting Lib Dem broadcasts again.

At the end of the proceedings (with far too many ad breaks), a net total of 10 of the hundred or so swing voters in the audience said they’d been so impressed with the top Tories that they’d vote Conservative. It feels very much as though it was the opposition parties who were the real winners on the night. Thanks, Boris.

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