Race for British PM moves to live TV debates

In years gone by, choosing the leader of the British Conservative Party would have been a largely closed-door event. But this year’s campaign – which has five hopefuls remaining – will see them go head-to-head in a series of live, televised debates.

Conservative leader candidates (L-R): Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak, Kemi Badenoch, Tom Tugendhat and Penny Mordaunt. /Tolga Akmen, Daniel Leal, Carlos Jasso, Chris McAndrew/AFP/UK Parliament

The first is on public broadcaster Channel 4 on Friday evening, followed by another on Sunday and a third on Tuesday.

But what are the issues, how does it work, and what should viewers look out for?

How the leadership election works

It’s the most successful party in British politics, having won the most general elections, but the Conservatives’ leadership contest is an internal affair.

A few hundred members of parliament (MPs) vote in several rounds to narrow the field of candidates down to two. The chosen duo then pitch their visions to tens of thousands of Conservative party members, who choose a winner following weeks of national campaigning.

After two rounds of MP voting, former chancellor Rishi Sunak leads the way among his colleagues, followed by surprise fellow frontrunner Penny Mordaunt, a junior trade minister. Foreign secretary Liz Truss, former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch and MP Tom Tugendhat make up the quintet.

So, what can we expect at the debates and why are they becoming so important?

It’s a sign of the times that these debates have become a focal point of the leadership race. They offer a chance for candidates to broadcast to the nation – even if millions of voters have no say in the final outcome.

The digital age and thirst for visual information means the Tory party hopefuls need to prove their credentials when it comes to handling high-pressure, live environments, especially as the winner will automatically become UK prime minister.

Style and substance?

The performance of the politicians will be closely watched. Some are expected to do better with live questioning. Sunak and Truss have the high-profile experience but Kemi Badenoch and Tom Tugendhat come in as relative outsiders, and the latter is seen as a competent orator, who’ll be hoping to use the debate to further his campaign.

The substance will be important too. Aside from internal hustings to Conservative colleagues, there hasn’t been too much in terms of media interviews. The debates will mean the contestants will be grilled on major issues, and controversies surrounding them as individuals.

Sunak has faced criticism that his privileged background means he’s out of touch with ordinary voters facing a cost-of-living crisis.

Mordaunt’s likely to be challenged on claims by her former boss at the Brexit ministry, David Frost, who said she lacked attention to detail and won’t make a good leader.

What are the key issues?

Unlike the majority of short media interviews so far, these debates will offer time to allow closer scrutiny of policy stances.

The war in Ukraine and Brexit will dominate in terms of foreign affairs. Boris Johnson took the UK out of the EU but many issues remain unresolved, such as the withdrawal agreement’s impact on Northern Ireland.

Candidates will also be tested on how they see the future relationship with the EU, still the UK’s largest trading partner. Sunak, Mordaunt and Badenoch backed Brexit in the 2016 referendum, while Truss and Tugendhat wanted to remain in the bloc.

Taxation has emerged as another key battleground. Aside from Sunak, the other candidates have promised major tax cuts but offered little explanation of how they’ll fund those. It’s an especially important point given the huge hole in public finances, largely as a result of COVID-19 support measures, which Sunak oversaw as finance minister.

Expect to hear plenty about Conservative ideals or conservative with a small ‘c’. The likes of promoting family values and helping parents with childcare costs will matter to many Tory party members and MPs, who’ll vote for a winner.

Similarly, culture wars have been mentioned as a factor in this race. Kemi Badenoch in particular, has said she wants to tackle the “cancel culture” she thinks has gripped the UK. Some Conservative party lawmakers view the issue as part of a leftist agenda, even if they personally support liberal values.

Last but not least is the cost-of-living crisis. Inflation is set to hit 11 percent this year, according to the Bank of England, and energy and fuel prices have risen sharply in recent months. Millions of voters are worried about struggling to make ends meet as they essentially become poorer, so reassuring them will be number one priority for all of the hopefuls.