Yorkshire Times
Weekend Edition
Roger Winterbottom
Features Writer
12:00 AM 8th June 2024

A Few Bad Men

Rishi Sunak started the election campaign so badly that it sometimes felt like he was still working as a hedge-fund manager hoping to make another fortune, this time by shorting the Tory party. But with the first of the leaders’ debates taking place this week, he had a chance to reset the narrative.

While Sunak’s recent public appearances have given the impression that he’s a man who has forgotten his safe word, this time things were rather different. Within a few minutes of the debate starting, it was instead the studio audience that must have felt – like Mark Menzies – they that had been locked in a room with some Bad People. I expect anyone attending would have happily paid a couple of thousand pounds in extra tax* to secure their release from enforced confinement with Sunak and Starmer. (*Other calculations are available.)

If it did nothing else, the TV debate must have led to a sigh of relief from most of the country that Keir Starmer has declined to do these on a weekly basis. The format of the ‘debate’ did not exactly lend itself to anything nuanced (“How are you going to fix the crisis in Gaza? You have forty-five seconds.”) but Sunak had clearly decided to come out fighting, and spent the debate shouting, hectoring, and talking over both Starmer and the host, Julie Etchingham, who could really have done with a button for muting microphones. As usual, Sunak repeatedly insisted that Starmer has no plan. I dunno, I thought Starmer had plans to move house and take up a new job?

It still amazes me to see the Tory PR machine putting Sunak front and centre of their campaign, as though seeing Sunak’s personality will help the Tories regain ground on Labour. Guys, you may want to sit down for this: I’m afraid I have some bad news for you.

Sunak already has a reputation as being a bit tetchy when questioned, but in the debate he more came across as unpleasantly rude: nasty, brutish and short-tempered. With Sunak constantly haranguing and interrupting Starmer, I started to feel that Sunak had come with a strategy to try to break Starmer’s veneer and get a rise out of him.

And so as the debate went on, my mind drifted to that 90s classic, A Few Good Men. In my mind, the famous courtroom scene was transformed, with Sunak taking on the Tom Cruise role (only without, y’know, the charisma and the good looks. Or the well-fitting clothes. But other than that, just like Tom Cruise.) Sunak was badgering Jack Nicholson (Starmer, obvs) about immigration.

“What are you going to do about immigration? What are you going to do? WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?”
But if Sunak hoped Starmer was going to react like Nicholson, he was in for a disappointment. There was no chance Starmer was going to lose his rag, though I must admit it would have been fun to see him do so: “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH! YOU’RE GODDAMN RIGHT I’M GOING TO RAISE TAXES BY TWO THOUSAND POUNDS!” Instead, Starmer just looked mildly exasperated, like a secondary school teacher who’d found a silly mistake in a pupil’s geography exam.

Since the debate, it has been the not-made-up-at-all £2,000 tax figure that has dominated the news, with the Tories insisting that it had been arrived at by independent Treasury officials, civil servants at the Treasury asserting that this is nonsense, and Starmer going on record to say that Sunak was a liar. Really, who are we to question Tory maths? We’ve all seen those forty new hospitals, right? And those 6,000 extra GPs?

The trouble is, there is a gaping hole at the core of this issue in that none of the parties are willing to say they will need to have more money to deal with all the problems in the country, or say where that money will come from. There are systemic problems with the UK’s transport infrastructure, with NHS services, with housing, with water, with poverty, with social care, with benefits, and a thousand other things. At some point, a government is going to have to deal with these either by borrowing money or raising taxes, or both. But no party seems willing or able to speak this truth, probably because anyone suggesting tax rises is pilloried and ridiculed. So maybe the problem is us, the public. Maybe we’re the ones playing Tom Cruise in this scenario; and we can’t handle the truth.