For a seven-way debate which didn’t even feature the two main party leaders, tonight’s BBC election programme was remarkably good. It felt as though it started with a jolt, with all the senior politicians present looking dazed as they struggled to find the words to respond to this afternoon’s terror attack at London Bridge. It is too early to debate the consequences, the policies which may change, the mistakes made and so on, and the awkwardness was palpable. There was visible relief when they were able to move on to the second question, and a different topic.
Because Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn had both sent along substitutes, the debate felt rather more balanced, rather than the leaders of the smaller parties trying to gang up on the big two. That doesn’t mean that Rebecca Long-Bailey and Rishi Sunak didn’t have to fend off attacks from the other parties: Plaid Cymru’s Adam Price was particularly keen to attack Labour’s record running the NHS in Wales, and Sunak naturally took a great deal of flak from the pro-Remain members of the panel for his – slightly robotic – focus on the need to ‘get Brexit done’. Both have been written up as potential leaders of their parties. Neither were particularly persuasive substitutes for their leaders tonight. Sunak appeared to be treating the programme as a test of his learning from rote of all the Tory slogans, without the confidence to argue independently.
Long-Bailey was more accomplished, having done more of these sorts of events, including Prime Minister’s Questions. But she struggled when asked to justify her leader’s decision to stay neutral on Brexit. Not only is Corbyn’s stance pretty difficult to explain at the best of times, but Long-Bailey also had to negotiate a question on how she might campaign in a second referendum, too. She side-stepped it by saying she would decide once there was a deal, but the whole segment highlighted Labour’s wider Brexit discomfort.
The biggest clash between Sunak and Long-Bailey came over the NHS, with the Labour shadow minister leaning heavily on the party’s dossier from this week which Corbyn and his comrades have claimed ‘proves’ that there is a secret Tory plan to sell off the health service. The confrontation was naturally rather heated, and other leaders dived in to support Labour.
But even though the pro-Remain leaders and Long-Bailey did work together on domestic issues, they squabbled about Brexit and what the best approach should be. In an hour and a half, they gave us a glimpse of why the Remain campaign has been so ineffectual over the past three and a half years: it is hopelessly divided. By contrast, Sunak and Richard Tice from the Brexit party didn’t lock horns that much, even on the central issue that both wanted to talk about. If there’s one takeaway from this debate, it’s that the people who want to ‘get Brexit done’ might not have been the loudest or most numerous of tonight’s cast, but they do actually seem to know the importance of getting on with what they want to do. From the clashes between the other leaders, it’s not clear they yet know how to get their way on remaining.