Voices: Sunak hopes TV debates can change his fortunes – they might just make matters worse

For many voters, TV debates will be the first time they have paid attention to the choice between Sunak and Starmer as prime minister  (AFP/Getty/EPA)
For many voters, TV debates will be the first time they have paid attention to the choice between Sunak and Starmer as prime minister (AFP/Getty/EPA)

The plot twist has been postponed again. Those of us waiting for the election narrative to change are still waiting. I wrote a couple of months ago that Labour would have a wobble before the election.

Party loyalists disapproved of my suggestion that there was bound to be at least one episode of panic at Labour HQ before election day, because the opinion polls were likely to narrow, either as a result of random variation or of events. They can be pleased that it hasn’t happened yet. If there is a Labour wobble, it will now happen during the campaign itself.

And if it does happen, it is likely to resemble the episode during the Conservative election campaign in 1987, when David Young grabbed Norman Tebbit by the lapels and told him, “We’re about to lose this effing election!” Margaret Thatcher won with a majority of 102.

The predictable “events” that might change the narrative are the TV debates. The first TV debate in a British election campaign, in 2010, transformed public opinion. Nick Clegg’s sub-Blairite bipartisan reasonableness came as such a shock to the voters that the Liberal Democrats briefly took the lead in the opinion polls, and they spent the last two weeks of the campaign neck and neck with Labour behind the Tories, before falling back to third place on election day.

No wonder Rishi Sunak is pushing for as many TV debates as he can get. He and his team know that they can be a game-changer. No wonder Keir Starmer is resisting, and proposing two rather than six. He and his team know the same. It is never in the interest of the frontrunner to agree to TV debates. The only reason they happened in 2010 was that David Cameron had challenged Gordon Brown to hold them when Cameron was the underdog, and the Tory leader was too arrogant and inflexible to get out of them when Brown said, “All right then” three years later, when their roles were reversed.

We should not be surprised if Starmer’s team manage to obfuscate so that even the two debates to which he has agreed in principle become bogged down in disputes. Should it be just the two of them? What about the Lib Dems? And Reform? And the Greens? What about a seven-way debate with John Swinney of the SNP and Rhun ap Iorwerth of Plaid Cymru?

The stakes are high because a lot of people watch TV debates. They can be derided as shallow exchanges of over-rehearsed sound bites but for many voters, they will be the first time they have paid attention to the choice between Sunak and Starmer as prime minister.

Sunak’s team think their man is good in such situations. I am told that they watch Prime Minister’s Questions with TV debates in mind, knowing that Starmer won’t be able to read out his lines as he does in the Commons. They are often surprised that the Labour leader appears not to have paid attention to Sunak’s replies, asking a question that has just been answered.

Sunak is quick and can improvise; indeed, he is at his best when improvising, as opposed to reciting memorised lines, which he does accurately but lifelessly.

They hope a good TV debate performance could give journalists what they desperately crave: a new storyline. Suddenly, they hope, the rain-soaked speech calling the election will be recast as plucky Britishness: a prime minister determined to follow tradition in the teeth of a light drizzle. All the missteps of the campaign’s early days – including accidentally scrapping the bill to enact one of his proudest legacies, the smoking ban – will be turned around into the narrative of the Comeback Kid. Daunted on all sides by the pratfalls of the campaign trail while traitors abandoned him, the underdog kept his head, stayed focused on the prize, and prevailed against all the odds.

They should not bank on it. There may well be a Labour wobble during this campaign. As Patrick Maguire, the party’s best chronicler, put it this week: “Something will wobble: a leak, a policy, a candidate, a shadow cabinet minister going the full Prescott. Let’s be honest: the media will want something to wobble.”

But it may not be the TV debates that do it. Sunak’s brilliance in debate may be his undoing. He was considered to have done badly in the TV debates in the Tory leadership election two years ago. He took Liz Truss’s arguments apart in ways that were richly vindicated by later events, but at the time he was given bad reviews for patronising her, talking over her and generally being an arrogant know-it-all.

The thing about a plot twist is that it should not be in a direction that the audience expects. Every time I thought that the narrative may be about to change, it got worse for Sunak instead.

It may be that the twist is that the election campaign goes even worse for the Tories than the moderate catastrophe that is already widely expected. The ending could be like that in Journey’s End, RC Sherriff’s claustrophobic First World War play, set in the trenches, in which Stanhope, the company commander, is “speculating moodily on the worm that went down when it thought it was coming up”.