Who won the ITV general election debate? Our writers have their say

Debate
Debate

Tonight’s ITV debate saw Penny Mordaunt, Angela Rayner and Nigel Farage face off for a second time in a lively seven-party debate which began only minutes after news broke that Reform UK has overtaken the Conservatives in an opinion poll for the first time. Here our writers give their verdicts on who performed best.

For Tim Stanley, Nigel Farage and Stephen Flynn were the big winners. For Sam Ashworth-Hayes, Angela Rayner showed some awareness of the need for big ideas to fix the NHS. Tom Harris argues the main loser was the audience.

“Not another debate?” said Bertie, my dog. Afraid so, old friend. This is the future now: a debate every night till the world ends or Daisy Cooper stops smiling (whichever comes first).

The winners were Nigel Farage and Stephen Flynn, who also provided the brightest sparks (they clearly hate each other). Farage, boosted by a poll showing him in second place, hammered home the impact of the population explosion; Flynn successfully tarred Angela Rayner as Tory-lite, muttering “shameful, shameful” at every ambiguity. The Green lady (don’t know her name) read out a student union manifesto to the wrong camera. The Welshman (cannot pronounce his name) seems to want to fill Wales with immigrants.

Rayner had reduced her sleeve volume by 40 per cent since the last debate; Penny had been at the hair straighteners, and was wearing a fetching Mao suit. Mordaunt attacked Ange, but Ange held her end up well – till she had to apologise for forgetting one of her answers. No problem, host Julie Etchingham appeared to have forgotten her question (she’d dropped her cards).

These things are not about “winning” in the sense of making a good point or persuading the audience. They’re about connecting with various key demographics at home, and are only interesting to the swing voter in that they give away where the parties think they stand. How curious then that Daisy Cooper – so chipper, she smiles when talking about food banks – indicated that the Lib Dems are now critical of mass migration. Reform has even shifted the loony centre to the centre-right.

Overall the debate earned three yawns from Bertie.

If you learnt anything from that debate, congratulations. The format was a mess, with six irritable politicians yelling over each other and Nigel Farage, understandably, grinning off to the side.

We kicked off with the NHS. Did anyone have any big ideas for fixing it?

The answer: no, not really. One by one, the politicians got up to say that they wanted to spend and hire more. That the government has spent and hired more while productivity has cratered didn’t seem to register. Farage gleefully took the opportunity to turn the question round to immigration, before pointing out this broken link between inputs and outputs, and suggesting that perhaps a French-style insurance system might work better. In other words, only Reform wanted reform.

Angela Rayner, to be fair, did eventually work her way to arguing for more scanners and efficiencies. But she didn’t really set out how this was to be achieved. It was a great opening for scrutiny. Unfortunately, what we got was Stephen Flynn rambling on about privatisation, and Penny Mordaunt embarking on a metaphor about the colour of cats catching mice.

The next question was on education. Penny started brightly, saying our education system is world class: the crowd laughed. It was a dispiriting and accurate illustration of the state of the campaign. Education is genuinely a Conservative success story. But they have failed to capitalise on this, failed to get this message across, and the sense of futility hanging around the party is such that people simply assume further failure.

On to migration, and what our strategy should be. From a long term perspective this is probably the most significant question facing the country today. Up stepped Rayner to answer it: we will introduce a skills strategy. Right then.

Nigel, as might have been expected, made some hay. The Greens and SNP, in turn, decided to attack him for scapegoating, dog whistling, and various other verb-animal combinations. It was at this point that Mordaunt scored a spectacular own goal. As Angela Rayner blamed the Tories for a flatlining economy reliant on overseas workers, Penny turned on her in thunderous denunciation: “you’ve had 14 years to come up with some ideas!”. Well, quite. And so have you.

It was the evening in a nutshell. Too brief from each participant, too bad tempered and short paced, not able to give us the detailed scrutiny that might actually change opinions. This was an exercise in futility.

Viewers might be forgiven for thinking they were watching a repeat. Every single participant in tonight’s ITV debate appeared together at an identical event last week, offering exactly the same “solutions” and arguments, not to mention the same clichés.

And to what end? Everybody knows that the story of this election is the unassailable lead of the Labour Party and the impending implosion of the Conservatives. Most of those watching could not be less interested in the fate of the SNP, the Greens or Plaid Cymru. Very few could tell you who the leader of the Liberal Democrats is, although granted, the future of Nigel Farage’s Reform UK could provide a number of popcorn moments in the weeks ahead.

But still they had at it: shouting over each other, making accusations of this or that betrayal, furiously alleging secret plans to decimate the public finances, giving the distinct impression that what they said would have a profound impact on the nation.

As before, the SNP’s Stephen Flynn proved to be one of the most forceful participants, benefiting from Angela Rayner’s peculiar reluctance to challenge him on his party’s dreadful record in Scotland. It fell to Farage to burst Flynn’s self-confidence by pointing out that Scotland, once considered a world leader in education, is now trailing in the international league tables.

On the evening when it was reported that Reform had overtaken the Conservatives in one poll, it was perhaps inevitable that Farage’s tail was up (when is it not?), earning a smattering of applause when he refused even to respond to an accusation of dog-whistling from Plaid Cymru. Yet again, in an unseemly and noisy free-for-all, it was Farage who emerged happiest.

But the main achievement of this debate was not to inform or educate the audience, and certainly not to help anyone who has not already made up their mind; its chief achievement was to make the case against having debates with more than two participants. Had microphones been placed above the studio audience, we might have heard, over the sound of seven various deputies and stand-ins exchanging accusations and pretending to be personally offended/amused by others’ answers, the rolling of a hundred pairs of eyes.